This Local Professor Studies Bees to Learn More About Humans

Marquette University Professor Chelsea Cook studies the social behavior of bees to learn more about humans.

A five-year-old Chelsea Cook sits in her backyard covered in dirt trying to make a mud pie as her father calls her over from the other side of the yard. The little girl runs up to him, barely able to contain herself as her father lowers his hand to reveal a caterpillar he found in the bushes. The little girl’s eyes widened with excitement.

“I was never told ‘no that’s disgusting, put it down,’” Cook said. “I think that really ended up paving the way for things I was interested in. Now I get to play with bugs literally every day.”

Chelsea Cook is currently an assistant professor of biology at Marquette University, and she is known in the academic world for her research on honey bee behavior that has earned her funding from National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


 

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With a bachelor’s degree in biology and a Ph.D. in ecology and evolution, Cook wanted to find a job that allowed her to be a research professor so that she could continue her research on honey bees while also teaching the next generation of researchers. 

“I took an evolutionary biology class in my undergrad that talked about evolution of behavior, and what I learned absolutely blew my mind. It was one of those moments where a switch flips in your head and you can’t think about anything in any other way,” Cook said. “I started to think about how environment and genetics led to certain behaviors and there’s still so much to be answered about honey bees.”

With her love for research, teaching and mentoring, Cook knew she wanted a good balance of the three. In her job search, she focused on universities with active research programs. After three years of applying to more than 100 jobs all over the world, Cook was offered a position at Marquette University. 

“I applied everywhere, that’s just how academia is. I applied in Europe, in Canada and like every city across the country from California to New York. I had some interviews, some offers but Marquette was the top choice,” Cook said. 

Photo by Riya Virani

At Marquette, she started her own research lab. Located in the basement of the Wehr Life Sciences Building, The Cook Lab is a black and yellow themed lab buzzing with excitement from her team’s research projects all with one thing in common: bees.

“It was my dream,” Cook said. “I’ve always wanted to have a lab and a community with others interested in this type of work.”

Her lab allows researchers as enthusiastic and insect-loving as Cook to conduct social behavior research using honey bees. The lab seeks to understand how animals work with each other to accomplish important jobs, such as regulating temperature. The researchers learn about the animal’s genes, physiology, behavior and how they work together and communicate. 

“Social insects – like bees, wasps and ants – have really complex behaviors, so we use honey bees as the model society to answer the same questions about humans,” Cook said. 

This research helps create an understanding of social behavior to measure and predict how human social dynamics may shift in a changing world. While The Cook Lab does this with honey bees, the research is applicable to all social animals, including humans.


Besides conducting research, Cook enjoys fostering moments of excitement and curiosity about the world for others, just like her parents did for her growing up.

“When I was growing up, they absolutely worked their butts off. Neither of them graduated high school so I think a lot of what I do comes from just seeing their struggles and seeing them work really hard,” Cook said. “I was able to learn from their work ethic and take advantage of the privilege that I have that they didn’t have.”

As a first-generation college student, she believes in ensuring her lab is inclusive and diverse. Out of the six-person research team, two are first-generation students, three are students of color and five are women.

“Having the right people around you and building the community to help you do your work is critical,” Cook said. “No one does research in isolation.”

Her doctoral student, Justine Nguyen, is also a first-generation college student.

“It was a really good match, and a lot of people in the department joke and say that they can’t tell the difference between me and her because our personalities match very closely,” Nguyen said.

But they have more than just their personalities in common. While Nguyen is figuring out what life looks like post-graduation, she has become inspired by Cook’s career path.

“I want to get my Ph.D. with the end goal of becoming a professor myself, so watching her just starting out, building up her lab and seeing how she mentors not only me, but also undergraduates in the lab as well has really helped me kind of be like ‘yeah, I want to be that person,’” Nguyen said.

One of the undergraduate research students, Macnessa Fidlin, connected with Cook through their shared passion for honey bees as kids. Fidlin’s father was a beekeeper growing up, so as soon as she stepped foot on Marquette’s campus, she knew she had to work with Cook.

Photo by Trevor Bawden

“She’s the type of person that truly cares about you and wants to get to know you, which is really refreshing because I feel like sometimes you don’t always get that, especially in the world of STEM.”  Fidlin said. “So having someone that makes that effort is really monumental.”

Cook values learning from and interacting with others, so The Cook Lab is not Cook’s only involvement on campus. MU Pollinators, a student club at Marquette, was created by Charlie Koenen, executive director of BeeVangelists, to raise pollinator awareness. Cook works as the faculty advisor.

“We are both fascinated by bees and their behavior. We like to cross pollinate our findings and experiences,” Koenen said. “Chelsea is always spreading the buzz about bees and her research, but in a way that attracts you like nectar to the bee.”

Using Marquette’s beehives on the rooftops of the Opus College of Engineering and the Wehr Life Sciences Building, members of both The Cook Lab and MU Pollinators study and interact with honey bees to shift the community’s thinking about bees.

“Chelsea’s research into thermoregulation could change how everyone thinks about bees. Understanding what it takes to get bees to work together to control their environment inside the hive is a novel idea with far reaching implications,” Koenen said.

Cook’s passion for bugs and behavioral research is helping form connections between a honey bee colony and a human community, and she’s found it to be her perfect career. The wide-eyed little girl who loves anything to do with the outdoors gets to live her dream every day.

“It really is the childhood dream come true,” Cook said.

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