Dr. Cori Richards-Zawacki is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and Director of the Pymatuning Lab of Ecology at the University of Pittsburgh. Cori received her Bachelor’s degree in engineering and biology as well as her PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology both from the University of Michigan. She conducted postdoctoral research at the Smithsonian Institute and the University of California, Berkeley. Cori next served on the faculty at Tulane University prior to joining the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh in 2015. In our interview, Cori shares more about her life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:10)
When she’s not working and doing research, Cori enjoys spending time outside with her husband and two young daughters. She likes to play soccer, hike, go mountain biking, and do other outdoor activities.
The Scientific Side (2:53)
Cori studies topics in ecology, evolutionary biology, behavior, and conservation in frogs. In particular, she is working to understand how frogs use different body forms, colors, and other features to survive partially on land and partially in water.
A Dose of Motivation (5:26)
“At night I went out into the dark and saw a glimmering star and heard a frog, and Nature seemed to say, Well do not these suffice?” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Enjoy the wow that is happening now.” – Daniel the Tiger
What Got You Hooked on Science? (9:34)
Throughout her school years, Cori was interested in different areas of science. In high school, she joined a competitive science program called Science Olympiad. Cori participated in various events, including one that involved learning about and answering questions about reptiles and amphibians. It was great to explore her interests in science and math with a group of people who shared those interests. Since she was interested in science and math, people encouraged her to pursue engineering in college. Though Cori enjoyed the chemical engineering curriculum in college, an internship in engineering during her junior year revealed that this might not be the kind of career she wanted. Cori wanted to get a job that allowed her to be outdoors and do work related to the environment and biology. In the summer after that illuminating engineering internship, Cori visited Costa Rica. It was amazing to visit places and see many of the organisms she had read about. In some cases, she even knew more about the species they encountered than some of the trail guides. Cori added biology as her second major and decided to pursue a career as an academic biologist.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (23:65)
During her PhD, Cori discussed her project and the aspects of her research that she was really excited about with a well-respected colleague. She was surprised when her colleague told her that her research didn’t sound very interesting. The individual didn’t mean that it wasn’t interesting science, but he meant that she needed to think about the bigger picture and larger themes in biology. This really challenged how Cori thought about her research and how to communicate it. At first, she didn’t understand why what she had said wasn’t interesting. However, she has come to realize that funding is typically given to projects that answer questions that are common to many species across many environments. To be successful, Cori needed to answer basic science questions that were applicable across study systems and organisms. This was a difficult lesson, but it has served her well in her career.
A Shining Success! (26:58)
A little over a year ago, Cori and her collaborators published a paper in the prestigious journal Science. For many years, they had been working on this study that documents what may be the start of the recovery of Panamanian frog communities after a major fungal pathogen epidemic. This was the first investigation into what factors may be facilitating recovery in these frog communities, and their evidence suggests that how frogs defend themselves against this pathogen has changed. Their research got a lot of media attention, and it was rewarding to get recognition for work that showed there was hope for these species.
Book Recommendations (29:53)
In Search of the Golden Frog by Marty Crump, The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
Most Treasured Travel (32:53)
Panama is Cori’s favorite place. She has spent much of her research career there and had many memorable experiences, close encounters with wildlife, and unexpected situations arise while doing field work in remote locations there. These have included adventures driving 4×4 vehicles through mud, over boulders, against the edges of cliffs, and through rivers and streams. Doing science in non-sterile conditions in the middle of nowhere in the jungle isn’t always easy, but Cori treasures her memories of hiking dewars of liquid nitrogen up the sides of mountains for sample collection and writing part of her dissertation in a small cinder block building with chickens clucking outside.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (35:10)
In her weekly lab meetings, Cori’s research group members take turns bringing in a food item that represents themselves to share with the group. Cori has previously brought in a Mardi Gras King Cake to represent the time she spent doing research and serving on the faculty in New Orleans. The lab also has a tradition of celebrating a successful thesis defense with champagne. When they uncork the champagne, they label the cork with the newly minted PhD’s name, and stick it in the ceiling of the lab as a record of all the people who have come through the lab.
Advice For Us All (39:45)
Get out of your comfort zone, and try new things. This is often how you can find your passion in science and discover cool, new ideas. Success in science is a little bit about intelligence, but probably less about intelligence than most people think. It is more about hard work, determination, perseverance, and developing a sense of self-assurance to deal with the infrequent encouragement you receive.
Cori’s research spans a variety of topics in biology from ecology to evolutionary biology and conservation but often focuses on amphibians, and frogs in particular. Her labs current projects are focused on understanding how climate (and climate change) impact host-pathogen interactions, how amphibians are managing to recover after epidemics of the fungal disease chytridiomycosis, and how natural and sexual selection contribute to trait diversification and the early stages of speciation. Her research has involved field studies in Panama and North America, and her work in Pennsylvania now takes advantage of the resources available at the Pymatuning Lab of Ecology, the University of Pittsburgh’s biological field station, which she directs. When not “sciencing” she enjoys spending time outdoors with her husband and two young daughters biking, hiking, and playing soccer. She looks forward to sharing with her daughters the amazing diversity of species in the tropics and enjoys seeing them interact with the nature closer to home at the Pymatuning Lab.