Photograph of Charlie McCord, with her reflection

Wednesday Geek Woman: Charlie McCord, student of biomechanics and fish feeding

This is a guest post by Maya. This entry originally appeared at the Project Exploration blog.

Charlie McCord is a PhD candidate in biology at the University of Chicago. Her research focuses on biomechanics in fish feeding and the morphology of fish jaws. She works in the Field Museum’s Biodiversity Synthesis Center.

Photograph of Charlie McCord, with her reflection

Charlie McCord © C. McCord, used with permission

Charlie grew up in Ojai, California. As a child, Charlie says she was “a bit of a tomboy” who loved being outside. She was always interested in science, but she initially leaned more towards writing and the performing arts. She credits her high school AP Physics teacher with inspiring her by emphasizing the creativity inherent in science.

After graduating from high school, Charlie went to UCLA to study ecology, behavior, and evolutionary biology. It was a big change for her; the university was almost eight times larger than her entire hometown. Getting involved with community service projects such as peer counseling and mentoring helped her “gain the confidence I needed to succeed.”

Charlie is currently studying organismal biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago. She has completed her master’s degree and is now a PhD candidate. Her research focus is primarily biomechanics, and she studies “the evolution of jaw form and function in triggerfishes and filefish.” Spending time with the collections of the Field Musem allows her to study the morphology of a broad range of fish jaws. Charlie works closely with the Field Museum, and as part of their “ongoing effort to better understand the biodiversity of life,” she has had the opportunity to travel with museum staff on several specimen collecting missions. “I’ve become quite the experienced SCUBA diver and spear fisherwoman!” she says.

Charlie finds the independence of doctoral research both challenging and rewarding. “You are coming up with experiments and questions that no one has ever done before, which can be very frustrating,” she says. She describes her committee of advisors as “wonderful,” but adds that “at the end of the day, what work I put in parallels how much data I can produce and how quickly my research progresses. This aspect is also the most rewarding, though. I know that whatever results I find are my own; it was the combined effort of the experiments I designed and the data I analyzed that produced them.”

Travel is another part of work that Charlie enjoys. In addition to going on expeditions with the Field Museum, she is spending the summer in Taipei, Taiwan as part of her National Science Foundation East Asia and Pacific Island Summer Institute Fellowship. Charlie was one of around 200 American students to receive the fellowship, and she says she feels very honored. While abroad, she is working on a project of her choice at the Academia Sinica.

Charlie also likes sharing science with young people. She has been working with Sisters4Science for three years and appreciates the variety of science subjects covered. “I don’t think I’ve given the same program twice since starting!” she says. Charlie has also worked with the Junior Paleontologist program and IGERT Explorers. She enjoys the opportunity to introduce her research to high school and middle school students in ways they can relate to. But the students aren’t the only ones learning. “I’ve also tackled various subjects that are not my expertise,” Charlie explains. “Learning new things to a degree that I can teach them is good practice for me.”

Asked what she’d say to an aspiring scientist, Charlie had this advice:

“Ask questions and be observant! Ther are so many exciting fields in science and SO so many unanswered questions that need fresh, young minds to ponder them. When you start thinking scientifically, it fundamentally changes the way you perceive the world around you. I think this is especially true for biomechanists and functional morphologists. You see the way things move, the way they interact with other organisms and their surroundings, and it is truly inspiring. You want to know how and why animals do what they do, and these fields give you the tools to be able to figure it out.”

Charlie is still putting together her website, but you can read about the lab she works in at http://biosync.fieldmuseum.org/users/mwestneat.

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