Dr. Gonzalo Giribet, Curator of Invertebrate Zoology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology
If it is slimy, spindly, has more than four legs, maybe more than two eyes, is multi-segmented, and would be a critter worthy of a starring role in the next Alien movie, chances are, it is a friend of Dr. Gonzalo Giribet. He loves all creatures that might terrify you at night. A professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and the Curator of Invertebrate Zoology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, Dr. Giribet’s research focuses on a smorgasbord of creatures that most people would probably associate with a phobia. Dr. Giribet loves his work, and it shows through as he speaks of his beloved creepy crawleys with a boy-like enthusiasm.
As a child, he assembled collections of mollusks and insects that he gathered along the beaches and in the forests of his home in southern Spain. While both he and his collections grew, he became increasingly interested in taxonomy and evolution, and was gradually more and more determined to become a biologist. Later, at the University of Barcelona, he specialized in both zoology and fundamental biology as an undergraduate, staying on to earn his PhD investigating the evolutionary relationships of arthropods, a phylum including insects, arachnids and crustaceans, through molecular genetics. Dr. Giribet’s study was one of the first to employ this type of analysis called molecular systematics, though it has since become a mainstay of investigations in evolutionary biology. For his post-doc, Dr. Giribet went to the American Museum of Natural History where he worked with the curator of Invertebrate Zoology, Ward Wheeler.
In 2000, he came to Harvard to investigate the phylogeography, or the genetic relationships of various invertebrate animals and how they relate to the geographic distribution of populations. As a man who can’t decide what particular organism he wants to focus on, he just decided to study all invertebrates. It has been a decision that has swung him all around the world into environments containing some of the strangest creatures on Earth. When he isn’t teaching, Dr. Giribet spends most of his days sifting through leaf litter and turning over rocks and logs in the nether regions of the world. He is in Australia studying centipedes one week and flies to Gabon the next to collect Cyphophthalmi, a primitive version of a daddy longlegs. After that, he swings back to Cambridge to teach a couple of classes at Harvard before he shoots off to Hawaii to study orb weaving spiders or to collect a roundworm or two, stopping off in Sweden to grab a few mollusks on the way home. What he described as “perhaps, a little too much traveling,” is, to a normal human being, exhausting to think about. “I can’t complain about my work,” he said, “but it is work.” Invertebrates are everywhere, after all.
When asked where he will take his research next, his eyes grew unnaturally wide. “Have you ever seen a velvet worm?” he asks.