Beyond the bustling exhibit halls of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. lies NOAA’s National Systematics Laboratory. As part of a strategic partnership with the Smithsonian Institution, the National Systematics Lab helps manage and care for parts of the Smithsonian’s marine collections. The lab’s scientists conduct critical research on marine biodiversity and systematics, or the biological study of how organisms are named, classified, and related to each other.
To celebrate Women’s History Month, we’re introducing you to the extraordinary women of the National Systematics Laboratory. Dive in and meet Museum Specialist Dr. Abigail Reft!
Midwestern Roots, Coastal Aspirations
Museum Specialist Dr. Abigail Reft has been surrounded by inspiring women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) for as long as she can remember. “My father had a Ph.D. and worked in medical physics, and he frequently worked with a female physicist named Dr. Kuchnir. I grew up very accustomed to seeing this highly respected woman working in her field, and that stuck with me, because it seemed normal and it wasn’t anything unusual to my dad,” she recounts.
While Reft was no stranger to academia thanks to her father, she didn’t have much exposure to marine science growing up in Chicago. “My parents were very much city people, so I took any opportunity I could to be in nature,” Reft says. “I stayed in Girl Scouts for as long as I could because it was one of my only ways to get outdoors and go camping.”
Reft’s fascination with the natural world led her to pursue biology at the University of Chicago, but it wasn’t until her junior year that she realized her passion for marine zoology. “I actually assumed that I would always work with birds, because that’s what I knew,” she recalls. An invertebrate zoology class taught by Dr. Michael LaBarbera quickly changed her career trajectory. By the end LaBarbera’s course, Reft was completely enamored with cnidarians, a group of aquatic organisms that includes certain species of jellies, sea anemones, and corals. “They’re so interesting to me. Their body plans are so simple, but their lineage is so old. They find ways to thrive in almost any kind of environment. And they’re just beautiful to look at,” Reft says.
Reft’s newfound enthusiasm for invertebrate zoology and two incredible summer courses at the University of Washington motivated her to pursue a masters degree at the University of Kansas. Under Dr. Daphne Fautin, a well-known anemone zoologist, Reft studied nematocysts, the stinging capsules contained in specialized cells called nematocytes in cnidarians. Through her research, she discovered a love for microscope work. “It’s great to be out in the field and to see animals in their natural habitat, but there’s only so much information you can glean there. For me, a lot of the joy comes from getting an organism back into the lab and under the microscope so you can really study its morphology,” she says.
Women Supporting Women
After completing her masters, Reft went on to earn her Ph.D from Ohio State, working in Dr. Marymegan Daly’s lab. One of the highlights of her time at Ohio State was the camaraderie she found in her all-female lab: “Dr. Daly was just starting out in her career when I arrived, and the lab was completely made up of women. Even our lab tech was a woman. It was such a fun, exciting time,” Reft recalls. She would again find herself surrounded by women scientists while working at Ewha Womans University in South Korea during her Ph.D. In South Korea, Reft conducted field work that fed into her dissertation with Professor Jun-Im Song, an expert on octocorals.
Reft began working for the National Systematics Lab in 2017 and helps to manage the marine fishes collection housed in the National Museum of Natural History. “I’ve always enjoyed museums as institutions,” says Reft, who also has worked at the Field Museum in Chicago during her career. “I love that the mission of museums is to create a sort of library of organisms. Each collection is a timestamp that can tell us about what life was like at that point in time. Each specimen in a collection is unique and valuable, because we can never recapture that specific moment in time again.”
An especially meaningful part of Reft’s time with the National Systematics Lab has been working with younger female scientists. “I’ve had some students from my old lab at Ohio State come to work in the National Systematics Lab. One needed to learn how to do microscope work with nematocysts, so I was able to mentor her in that. Being able to pass on that knowledge to other women who are earlier in their careers has been really rewarding,” Reft reflects.
“I’m very lucky that I’ve gotten to work with really wonderful women in my career," she says. "My advice to fellow women scientists is to build relationships with other women in the field at your level, because they become a support network. It’s so important to build that cohort of women who will help and support you."