Hi there! I am a research scientist at the University of Chicago. I'm here to answer questions with help from Atlas Obscura. I have spent the majority of my life dedicated to pursuing a career in science studying butterfly ecology and evolution, which has included a great deal of field research in the tropical jungle and Amazon rainforest. In my free time, though, I trade in my lab coat and muddy field boots for 6-inch heels twice a year to walk in London Fashion Week to show off the latest fashion trends. When possible while working in the city, I handle modeling gigs on the side. Dealing with this “double life” as a scientist and model has helped me break stereotypes that exist in both professions, while discovering creative ways to find overlap between the two. I have a bachelor’s degree in Entomology (Cornell University), and I finished my Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (University of California) by the time I was 27 years old. I have gained recognition for my experiences from several international media sources, including People Magazine, Fox News, Al Jazeera, and more, along with recognition for my research discoveries in sources such as National Geographic, PBS Nature, BBC, and Smithsonian News.

Feel free to check out some links to articles and adventures below! And find me on Twitter: @Fink_about_it





Atlas Obscura Twitter: https://twitter.com/atlasobscura

Proof: https://twitter.com/atlasobscura/status/994316135079337985

EDIT: Thank you everyone for joining us! I didn’t quite make it to some of the last questions at the end, but feel free to tweet remaining questions at me @Fink_about_it. It was a pleasure and I hope some of you are now inspired to go out and look for cool bugs, now that the weather is lovely and summer is around the corner :)

Comments: 310 • Responses: 43  • Date: 

daringlydear308 karma

Are you aware there is a Frasier episode about this, except the model studies reptiles?

atlasobscura187 karma

No! That sounds really fascinating though I’ll have to watch it!

Esotastic299 karma

Couple questions: How accurate is it to say that during the pupae stage, caterpillars turn into a sort of bug smoothie before forming into a butterfly?

Have you ever considered curating a butterfly/caterpillar themed fashion show? You can call it Papillondon Fashion Week.

atlasobscura305 karma

That’s pretty accurate! We consider it more like a soup -- but believe it or not, even in the caterpillar stage, they have tiny features (inside the body) called discal cells that already have tiny wings that will later develop during pupal stage to be the giant butterfly wings!

Hahahaha! That’s a fantastic idea. I’ll have to ask the CEO of my LWF Fashion Shows about that one!

joejustjoe120298207 karma

Curious: What % of your income does each of these occupations generate?

atlasobscura336 karma

That’s a great question! It is very difficult to compare the two. Modeling pay is hourly-based. Research is salary-based. So what I earn will always vary depending on how many modeling jobs I pick up, and what the hourly rate is (this varies by job). In the end, though, you can’t really put a price tag on being able to do what you’ve always wanted to do since you were 5 years old. In my case, I had wanted to study insects since I was 5!

abigillygal158 karma

Have you had a bad experience with someone from one of your industries looking down at your other job? E.g. Has a model ever scoffed at your work as a scientist, or vice versa? Or have they both been supportive communities?

atlasobscura210 karma

I have not yet had any negative experiences in either field. Everyone has been incredibly supportive. In the end I am bringing diversity to science and diversity to modeling (in good ways, in both fields) and I think that can be appreciated.

lamed-vov137 karma

What is the difference between an entomologist who researches butterflies and a lepidopterist?

That's not the setup for a joke. I'm just curious.

atlasobscura119 karma

They are the same thing! Entomology encompasses the entire field of insect biology. Lepidoptera is the order of insects that consists of butterflies and moths. So a lepidopterist is the correct term for someone who specifically studies butterflies and/or moths within the field of entomology.

karmaranovermydogma136 karma

What were your worst and best experiences in the field?

And favorite place to get coffee in HP?

atlasobscura304 karma

My worst experience was getting stung by a Megalopyge opercularis caterpillar in the middle of the field in Panama miles and miles away from the station -- the pain was so bad that it made me vomit, and I couldn’t move my arm for two days!

The best experience I had was probably collecting one of my first morpho butterflies, a dream I had since I was 5 years old. Getting caught in a rainstorm is also pretty fun!

Great question! I frequent Hallowed Grounds and Fabiana’s quite a bit now :)

queenbrahms103 karma

This is so incredible and inspiring to see! I’m a woman in STEM (at UChicago actually!) who is obsessed with makeup on the side - I do makeup for people for parties and such haha! Do you ever have moments where your two worlds unexpectedly collide? I saw someone earlier asked a question about incorporating butterflies into photoshoots but I was thinking more serendipitously :)

atlasobscura132 karma

Hello UChicago neighbor! Swing by the Zoology building to say hi!

It’s funny you mention makeup -- I actually have no idea how to do my own makeup (and am always relying on a makeup artist for photo shoots and shows!)

So, I actually just gave a TED talk last weekend at TEDx UChicago about overlap between science and modeling. I do find that, for example, it takes core strength and balance to walk swiftly in 6-inch heels on the runway, the same I might need to hike/climb up steep muddy hills in the rainforest or while walking across logs over streams. I also have enjoyed bringing mathematics to my runway walk and calculating the probabilities or likelihood I would get paired with a designer based on their clothing style, my measurements, etc! I have been at shows that have nature-inspired clothing, and, I will bring some butterflies to an upcoming photo shoot :)

CardinalDoom47 karma

How did you get interested in entomology, and in studying butterflies in particular? Have you ever incorporated butterflies into your modelling and fashion shoots?

atlasobscura84 karma

I have actually been interested in entomology since I was about 4 or 5 years old! Butterflies were always my favorite because they were most challenging to collect, and to me the most interesting (but I also have taken a liking to dragonflies and ants). I have plans to include butterflies in an upcoming photo shoot, and, lucky for me I’ve even gotten the chance to wear some outfits on the runway with butterfly designs on them. The designer didn’t even realize I study butterflies so it was a wonderful coincidence!

ADIDASects43 karma

Would you rather fight 100 butterfly-sized models or 1 model-sized butterfly?

atlasobscura62 karma

Hmm. 1 model-sized butterfly because I love giant bugs!

DrDisastor29 karma

Do you keep a butterfly/pollinator garden? If so what are your favorites?

(I just planted a big one and have some room left for plants)

Also 5yo me is super jealous. All I wanted to be was an entomologist. I am a flavor chemist today so that isn't a bad outcome either.

atlasobscura44 karma

Unfortunately I do not have a garden at the moment, since I live in a big city! But we do have some greenhouses here on campus with swallowtail butterflies, monarchs, and longwing butterflies, that we are taking care of and use for behavior studies. The butterflies seem pretty happy in the greenhouse with unlimited resources and no worries of predators!

That’s exciting! I hope your 5yo wants to be an entomologist :) Wow flavor chemistry sounds fun! Any prospects for nectar flavors for butterflies? ;)

susken126 karma

If you could only be successful in one of your fields which would you choose. And what do you enjoy most about each career?

atlasobscura77 karma

If I could choose just one field to be successful in, it would be in scientific research and entomology. Being able to spend my life studying butterflies is something I have wanted to do since I was very young, and making discoveries is so exciting! Although the modeling is a really fun and wonderful job on the side, my heart has always been with science.

What I enjoy most about scientific research is going to the field (tropical rainforests) to see butterflies in their natural habitat. It gives me inspiration to come up with new projects. I also really love writing so publishing is another favorite part of being a scientist!

My favorite thing about modeling is feeling like I am in a whole new world, separated from science. When I have fashion shows or photo shoots, I almost feel like a princess getting my hair and makeup done, and getting the chance to wear glamorous, one-of-a-kind designer outfits.

SuzQP24 karma

I have two questions:

How high can a butterfly ascend in the sky?

Are butterflies as aimless as they appear to be while flitting around looking for flowers? (It looks as if they sort of accidentally find the blossoms in my garden.)

atlasobscura47 karma

Butterfly flight is fascinating and many people interested biomechanics will look at insect flight. Flying insects often do a sort of “figure 8” with their wings during take off or for hovering, and push down air with their wings to get lift that makes them ascend upward.

Some butterflies might appear to be flying around aimlessly, however, others actually have a behavior (like bees) called traplining, where, they remember where specific sets of flower resources are, and visit these resources in the same order every day to look for nectar. But, when their favorite nectar resources run low, they will need to search elsewhere for new food.

MisterLicious22 karma

As a PhD Entomologist who also has to work in an industry filled with "pseudoscience" - what is your opinion on GMOs? Organic vs "traditional" produce?

atlasobscura49 karma

I have no opinion on whether you should purchase one or the other, however, I do agree that fresh produce should be made affordable for everyone everywhere.

vortexed16 karma

Hey, I’m an entomologist too! As someone who travels a lot, where in the world would you most want to go/return to for a leisurely insect exploration trip?

Last year I worked as a butterfly biologist in North Cascades National Park. It was the most amazing job I could ever dream of having, in part because of the natural beauty of Northern Washington. I also studied abroad in Ecuador, and I too spent time in the Amazon jungle, marveling at the diversity of the insects there. I would go back to either place in a heartbeat.

atlasobscura15 karma

Would love to see bugs in the South Pacific/Borneo/Indonesia!

Yes I agree -- the Ecuadorian Amazon is literally amazing!

Gibby11615 karma

What's been your favorite butterfly to study?

What's been the most difficult butterfly to study?

atlasobscura36 karma

My favorite butterfly to study is the postman longwing, Heliconius erato! They are incredibly smart, fascinating species, and I spent the majority of my dissertation working with them.

I am currently doing some work on admiral butterflies with the common name “sisters” from the genus Adelpha (like the California Sister). Although they are fun to study and have very fascinating natural history, they are incredibly difficult to collect, so getting information on them is challenging. Especially trying to collect them in the Amazon rainforest because many species only fly in the canopy.

Gnomification13 karma

How much of the movie "The butterfly effect" was actually true?

atlasobscura16 karma

An interesting question! I think the world may never know the answer to that one.

shankliest12 karma

Right now, I've got about 30 milkweed plants and love watching monarch butterflies and caterpillars enjoy them. What other plants would you recommend to attract other butterflies? I live in a subtropical/ coastal community

atlasobscura25 karma

You can’t go wrong with planting butterfly bush! Lantana camara (or other Lantana species) is really great for attracting several species of butterflies as well. What is exciting about Lantana is that the flowers actually change color as the nectar availability changes, so butterflies know which of the flowers to visit!

imextremelysorry9512 karma

Is there any evolutionary pathology that can account for the metamorphosis? As in how , over millions of years, does one develop metamorphosis as a evolutionary phenomenon/advantage?

atlasobscura26 karma

The most basal groups of insects, as in, the ones that have been around longest on Earth, do not undergo full metamorphosis and instead their juvenile form resembles the adult form. However more advanced insect groups, that are “younger” on Earth, have evolved to undergo complete metamorphosis and have multiple life stages where the juvenile stage in no way resembles the adults (think beetle grub or fly maggot vs. adult beetle or adult fly). Arguably one of the best advantages to having complete metamorphosis and distinct life stages is that there is no resource competition between larvae and adults, meaning, they occupy different habitat spaces and feed on completely different kinds of food, which has helped many insect groups diversify and be successful.

proofwishbone5ever11 karma

How did you figure out that you could pursue both professions at once, and how do you manage your time now?

atlasobscura44 karma

It was always my lifelong dream to become an entomologist and earn my PhD. After I finished my PhD 3 years ago and got my first postdoctoral research position, I decided to try modeling since many of my friends suggested it, and I realized that I could use it as a tool to draw attention to entomology and evolutionary biology in unique ways (and promote women in STEM by being a role model for young girls). So I reached out to a modeling agency and signed with them, and have been modeling professionally for a year now.

I am always an advocate for having hobbies on the side so I treat modeling like a hobby. I accept jobs that fit in my schedule, and I decline ones that don’t. I try to schedule modeling commitments on weekends or evenings, and as far ahead of time as possible, so that it doesn’t interfere with my research obligations. I still keep scientific research my priority.

sapheri9 karma

Hello there! My boyfriend is very much into nature and doesnt think that he can find a sustainable job in research or nature. Can you talk to how hard it was to find a research role, espcially given that you have another job on top of research?

Also if you have any tips for moving into research how to do this!


atlasobscura14 karma

For my specific area of research, a PhD is preferred. I established myself in my field early on by publishing my research in well-known scientific journals, and speaking at conferences. Exposure is important for finding good research positions if you are interested in a career in academia (which is the route I am taking). It really depends on what there is demand for, and what you have experience in, and keep an eye out for job openings on websites like evoldir or ecolog. Also, I sought the modeling job after I already had my research job set, so that it didn’t interfere!

conservio7 karma

What’s your favorite butterfly?

Do you ever experience sexism in either one of your professions?

atlasobscura19 karma

My favorite butterfly is unfortunately one I have never seen alive before -- it is the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, also the largest butterfly in the world, and also endangered. It is only found in certain areas of Papua New Guinea. It has been my dream, since I was 6 years old, to travel there to see this butterfly in the wild. I hope I get the chance to do this someday! I’ll call it a butterflycation :)

Luckily, I have not had an issue with this before, in either profession. I let my CV speak for itself in the science industry, and my portfolio speak for itself in the modeling industry. Everyone has been very respectful.

tacknosaddle7 karma

I've read that Vladimir Nabokov was very passionate about butterflies and studied them as a hobby. Supposedly his writings on them were very useful to the scientists in the field. How would you describe the importance of his writings in the field? (e.g. were they more part of a foundation or just supplemental?)

Bonus question: What's your opinion of his novel Lolita?

atlasobscura12 karma

You are correct, Nabokov loved butterflies and has an immaculate collection, especially of hairstreak butterflies. Many of his specimens are in museums and are useful to many entomologists, and I would agree that his contributions are highly important!

Unfortunately I have not read all of Lolita so I cannot comment on that part :(

Dottie-Minerva6 karma

Do you see any surprising/hopeful trends in the many declining butterfly populations/migrations?

atlasobscura14 karma

I do know that a lot of really high-quality research is being undertaken to understand why we see declines in butterfly populations, especially migratory ones. I have high hopes that we will be able to target the underlying issues behind these problems so that we can bring our butterfly populations back! It will most likely require help from everyone though, not just scientists.

schultjh6 karma

Do butterflies, or science more generally, inspire your runway looks or your everyday fashion? Have you ever designed a garment?

atlasobscura8 karma

I admit that when I’m out shopping, I definitely favor clothing with insect designs on them (of course especially butterflies!). I haven’t designed any clothes but I have designed a few insect-themed Halloween costumes if that counts!

Silent_J_5 karma

I know a lot of scientific names for insects can be quite humorous when you think of the literal translation, so what's your favorite instance of the etymology in entomology?

atlasobscura8 karma

There once was a fly with a shiny gold abdomen named after Beyonce, even though Beyonce’s name isn’t Latin, it’s pretty funny. According to Wikipedia: “Scaptia beyonceae is a species of horse fly found in the Atherton Tablelands in north-east Queensland, Australia.[1] Discovered in 1981 but not scientifically described until 2011, the fly is named after American recording artist and actress Beyoncé.”

standswithpencil5 karma

Hi Dr. Finkbeiner! You see you do a lot of work sharing your research with the general public. Is there any relationship between that and modeling?

atlasobscura10 karma

Hi! As of recently I’ve been able to share my stories with the general public regarding both science and modeling, for example I gave a public TED talk about being in both professions last week. In a few weeks time the TED talk will be made public. If you follow me on Twitter, I will share it there once the talk is online on the TEDx YouTube page! I have been invited to speak to high school and middle school girls about pursuing careers in science, and, they often seem fascinated by the fact that I am a model too. Perhaps a new kind of “role model” or “scientific model” ;)

GOODahl5 karma

& what is your favorite cuisine?

atlasobscura17 karma

Not to make an arthropod joke, but, I do love seafood. Lobsters and shrimp are pretty much giant bugs of the sea anyways :-P

CrisisAvertedGlass4 karma


atlasobscura6 karma

Any building with nectaring plants, perhaps, on a rooftop or balcony, along with some shade, could help butterflies looking for resources.

greim4 karma

So, what is the etymology of entomology? This has been bugging me.

atlasobscura3 karma

Haha, I’ve heard that one! Entomology (from Ancient Greek (entomon), meaning 'insect', and (-logia), meaning 'study of)

missesmayi3 karma

Have you gotten to model a butterfly/etymology themed outfit yet? OR Have you gotten to model mock lab fashion? I work in biochemistry and strut around the lab in heels on important meeting days, it's so fun!

atlasobscura6 karma

Wonderful! I only wear my heels in lab close to fashion shows so I can make sure my shoes are broken in (otherwise I am just too tall for the lab bench!). I would love to model lab fashion. Back in Boston I was hoping to get modeling gigs for lab fashion but had no such luck! And, I have modeled some designs/outfits on the runway with butterflies on them, totally by coincidence!

zpeterson6173 karma

I just finished my undergrad in Biology. I’ve been thinking about either going into the medical field or doing something with ecology/evolutionary biology/conservation biology (I actually took an entomology class during my undergrad). Any advice for someone still trying to figure out what route they want to take with their Biology degree?

atlasobscura5 karma

Figure out what fascinates you most! What I love about entomology is the opportunity for research across many avenues, and there seem to be endless opportunities. There are medical and veterinary fields that overlap quite a bit with entomology, so, that could be something to consider!

needmorexanax3 karma

So when you were a kid, you thought, "i want to be a model and work with butterflies?"

Was this a childhood dream of yours?

atlasobscura5 karma

My childhood dream was “I want to be an entomologist and work with butterflies!” The modeling wasn’t something I was interested in until about a year or so ago.

Obversa3 karma

If you could pick one butterfly species to model a runway look off of, which one would it be, and why?

atlasobscura5 karma

Either Heliconius erato or Ornithoptera alexandrae. The first (Heliconius) is my favorite butterfly to study but the second (Ornithoptera) is one I have always wanted to see! Both have very bright, bold wing patterns.

OnymousCoward3 karma

Do you happen to know what the origin of the word "butterfly" is?

atlasobscura3 karma

I recently heard that, there is still mystery behind the origin of the word “butterfly”!

GOODahl3 karma

Who are your favorite clothing designers?

atlasobscura14 karma

Great question, there are too many to list! In all honestly, a lot of my attire when I am not modeling requires a lab coat or light clothing to wear in the jungle, so, not many high-fashion designers are interested in designing those sorts of clothes. Although I wouldn’t mind a Burberry Lab coat ;)

Aray6373 karma

What is your favorite place to collect insects?

atlasobscura9 karma

Tricky question! It’s a tie between the lowland Caribbean forests of Costa Rica, or the Amazon Rainforest! However, it is my dream to travel to Papua New Guinea to see (but not collect) the birdwing butterflies there. I don’t collect for sport or hobby anymore, only for research, and obtaining special permits for collecting is a long and complex process.

deuceandguns3 karma

I've seen a few reports on the insect population decline. Do you have any observations and/or insights on this from your studies?

atlasobscura4 karma

Insects are constantly diversifying even though populations may be declining. Unfortunately many species will become extinct before they are even discovered. Regarding the field sites that I have been visiting the last decade, I will see some areas have more insects and others less, so I think it is highly variable. But obviously habitat loss or introduction of invasive species will be a major cause for declines.

SheCrazyExGirlfriend2 karma

When you wake up in the morning, do you think about staying in bed, or is everyday a day to absolutely rock at life?

atlasobscura4 karma

Definitely want every day to be one I rock at life :)

piccini92 karma

Have you had a chance to model one of those cool Alexander McQueen butterfly headdress things?

atlasobscura1 karma

I wish!!! Maybe someday :)

Troyster942 karma

Thanks for doing this AMA! Do you have a favorite species of butterfly? If so, what is it about that species that sets is apart from the others?

Do you also study moths, or is your research exclusive to butterflies?

atlasobscura4 karma

My favorite species of butterfly is Ornithoptera Alexandrae, the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing! It is the largest butterfly in the world, also highly endangered. It is interesting to me because the males and females have fascinating mating behavior and because I am interested in coloration, there is very very strong sexual dimorphism in this group where the males look totally opposite from the females (likely, to impress them with their flashy colors)!

Currently I am just doing work with butterflies because I am interested in the evolution of butterfly wing patterns. Moths tend to be less-colorful because they mostly fly at nighttime where bright colors are less detectable. But I would be very open to working with moth diversity as well!

Thonyfst2 karma

What designers have you walked for? Could you describe what it's like behind the scenes?

atlasobscura5 karma

I have walked for so many by now! Jef Albea, Jenny White, Honee Moon, Aandre David, Iris Rodriguez, Mimi Patel, Hannan El Bou, Sara Onsi, Shen Annz, Jolie, among so many others, too many to list. Most have been via fashion shows in the UK with House of iKons (CEO Savita Kaye). Behind the scenes is amazing, getting your hair and makeup done, having people dress you and stitching outfits until the last minute, the glamour, the other models, it’s like I am Cinderella every time!

BurgerPleaseYT1 karma

What's your favorite burger joint?

atlasobscura3 karma

In-N-Out is delicious! But I grew up with Steak n Shake...

frummbles1 karma

How much time do you spend doing field research as opposed to work in the lab? I'm a STEM undergrad who's still trying to figure out if all the lab time is worth it.

atlasobscura2 karma

It really depends on the project! Sometimes I spend 2 weeks in the field, sometimes 6 months or longer. The work is always worth it when you are discovering new, interesting things!