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Women in Science

Women In Science

Penelop Kukuk photo
Penelope F. Kukuk, Ph.D.

Penelope F. Kukuk, Ph.D.

Research Professor, Division of Biological Sciences
Director, Project TRAIN, Bridges to Baccalaureates program, and Project PACE
Co-director, Research Opportunities in Science for Native Americans

Inquisitiveness is part of Dr. Penny Kukuk's internal motivation. As a child Penny was always drawn to biology, specifically to the behavior of animals and insects; growing up she wondered how animals manage to build homes, reproduce, and care for their young without the amenities that humans enjoy. Why are some animals and insects solitary? How do animals socialize and cooperate? Do methods of cooperation vary among different species and how do group properties, like the division or labor, emerge in these cooperative groups? These questions and more fueled Penny's entrance into the sciences—first to the University of North Carolina, where she received her Bachelor's of Science in Zoology, and then on to The University of Kansas where Penny did her graduate studies and earned her Ph.D. in Ecology and Systematics.

It was here at the University of Kansas that Penny met and collaborated with some of her greatest intellectual influences. Dr. Charles Michener was at the forefront of the exciting and innovative discipline of sociobiology. As EO Wilson was theorizing new ideas about the sociology of insects and animals, Penny was immersed in studying the social behavior of bees. In her first summer of graduate work at KU, Penny found the experience of hands-on applications surrounding new theories stimulating. Thus began Dr. Kukuk's lifelong involvement with halictine bees.

Dr. Kukuk's first academic research at the University of Kansas set the stage for future research. Out of this initial work rose the necessity for working with halictine bees if she were to continue to study behavior because, within the family Halictidae, there are over 20,000 species worldwide that exhibit a wide range of social behaviors and organizations. No other bee, wasp, or ant family group can boast such variation. Emerging from this early study was a significant new question: Why do so many species breach the orthodox view that individuals who are not relatives will not form socially cooperative groups? The answer, according to Dr. Kukuk, can be seen in the mismatch between the longevity of adults and the period of time it takes for a brood to mature.

Upon leaving the University of Kansas, Dr. Kukuk completed post-doctoral work at Cornell University and was the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship to the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. With a concentration on the behavior, genetics, and ecology within a genus of halictine bees found in Southern Australia, Penny continues to study the evolution of sociality, especially the fitness consequences of cooperation in non-kin-based groups. About her current research, Dr. Kukuk comments that "Most recently, I and collaborators are pursuing two novel directions in this research. First, we are taking a quantitative genetics approach to establish the genetic basis for socially relevant behaviors in the field populations, and second, we are conducting an investigation of how group properties (like division of labor) emerge from the characteristics of group members."

Penny has pursued this line of research since she arrived in Montana in 1989 as an associate research professor at the University of Montana-Missoula. Now a full research professor at UM, Penny remains involved with students through her participation in teaching a seminar series called Listening to Ecology, which is a collaborative seminar series between UM and Salish Kootenai College that brings in ecologists and wildlife biologists from outside the institutions' own communities. The series draws students from both institutions who attend and then critique each seminar. "Working with students and watching them develop through their undergraduate and into their graduate careers" is one of Penny's greatest motivators.

Penny also directs several projects on the UM campus. Project TRAIN and the Bridges to Baccalaureates project are outreach programs for Native American science students. These projects provide tribal college students with summer research internships at UM. Additionally, she directs Project PACE, which focuses on increasing the number and status of women science faculty at UM. Penny's role as a program office from 1997-1999 at the National Science Foundation led her to realize that the current and future health of sciences requires a multifaceted approach to the inclusion of diversity in the sciences.

About her personal life Penny says that, while work is certainly an important aspect of her life, spending time with family and friends and enjoying the tremendous benefits that living in Montana offers are essential. Working with kind people throughout her various endeavors, watching the situation improve for young women in the sciences, and an innate curiosity about all species of life make Dr. Kukuk's chosen career path satisfying, rewarding, and one that she enjoys more with each day.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. SBE-0245094. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
Copyright © 2008, The University of Montana, Missoula, MT 59812.