Crickets and Prof. Crocker

Professor Katherine Crocker stands in the hallway with their scientific equipment in hand. Photo Credit: Emilia St. Jon

By Raka Custer

Professor Katherine Crocker, Kaw Nation of Oklahoma, is a recent hire to the Biology department, applying only last January and teaching their first classes this fall. They earned two BAs from Cornell University in Chemistry & Chemical Biology as well as in English Literature, before getting their Master’s and Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan.

Crocker hasn’t always been interested in biology, though. “I actually hated biology in college. It was my least favorite subject. In fact, I really, really, really didn’t like it. And I partly really didn’t like it because I nearly failed in Intro Bio when I took it,” they said

Professor Crocker recalled that being packed into lectures with 350 students taught by a seemingly-spiteful professor did not bolster their interest in the class. They continued to study English Literature, their focus being on Chaucer and Shakespeare. However, after participating in field ecology summer research, Professor Crocker came to consider Biology to be something they genuinely enjoyed, and could see themselves following as a career path. Eventually, they realized that biology was a perfect fit. “It was one of the things that would let me do the most of the things I like, like wear jeans to work and interact with a community and have meaningful intellectual interactions, get to solve puzzles and get to go outside a lot,” they said.

Today Crocker’s research focuses on how hormones can affect species’ phenotypes over the course of generations. To study this, they examine the hormone distribution from crickets to their offspring. “I measure the hormones that cricket moms put into their eggs under different environmental conditions to try to understand what it’s like to be a cricket and how environments affect not just one generation of crickets, but multiple generations of crickets,” they said. Professor Crocker is currently looking for students to assist in their summer research, which centers on whether or not certain hormone-induced effects will skip multiple generations of crickets if they produce more than one generation per year.

Crocker also described how they strive to make their experiments “as pleasant as possible” for the crickets. All of their experiments are non-lethal, and euthanization is only carried out if necessary. Even when the crickets are no longer needed for research, Crocker tries to give them a comfortable life. “At the end of experiments, I retire them. I put them in a big bin and try to get them lots of food and lots of hiding places and let them self-actualize to the extent that I’m able to facilitate. Because I feel like it would be a bad way to exist otherwise,” Crocker said.

In their work as a researcher studying living organisms, Professor Crocker rejects the mindset of the unfeeling and utilitarian scientist, instead calling out its potential perpetrator: “I would hypothesize that it’s part of toxic masculinity in our culture, this idea that the intellectual ideal is somebody who doesn’t care about the pain they inflict, and it’s deceptive because of course we very much care. We suffer, and it makes us feel good to claim that we don’t care about anything. But that’s still serving an emotional logic. So, I don’t subscribe to it and I don’t believe that it’s cohesive.”

Although Professor Crocker has not been at the University of Puget Sound for long, moving to a smaller, academic setting has been positive for them, and they are particularly fond of the interdisciplinary nature of the University’s academics. “One of the things I’m glad to be part of about this institution is the encouragement of people to think among many disciplines at once,” they said. With their experience in both Humanities and STEM and their commitment to ethical experimentation, Professor Crocker’s presence at this institution seems to indicate how interdisciplinary study can better our understanding of the natural world, and reaffirm our responsibility to hold it in kindness.