Damhnait McHugh, Ecologist

We should see ourselves, I think, as custodians of the great diversity of animals that we see around us today. But we should also remember that we are not masters of this diversity. In fact, we depend very much on the diversity of animals around us . . . even the lowly worm. -- Damhnait McHugh

Colgate University Biologist Dr. Damhnait McHugh finds all worms fascinating. Her research attempts to understand how evolution has produced the incredible diversity found among the annelids. The common earthworm, for instance, is related to the spaghetti worm, a marine creature that hides its body in a tube and sends long, pasta-like tentacles out to bring food to the animal's mouth.

Along with other annelid experts, McHugh has shown that worms of all kinds are important members of their ecosystems. Her research on annelids has taken her around the world. At Coos Bay, Oregon, McHugh and several students examined worms that burrow into the bay's tidal mud flats. In other tidal flats, she studied the worm, Diopatra, which helps to stabilize the mud in which it lives by constructing tubular homes from sediment, bits of shell and biological glue. Even the dirty job of working with worms in their native habitat appeals to McHugh. "What I like doing the most," she says, "is actually getting out, getting down, getting dirty in the mud with the worms themselves. Getting out there whether it's pouring rain, whether it's a low tide at dawn, I don't care. I just like to be out there with the worms, seeing them in their own habitat."

About Damhnait McHugh’s career

Damhnait McHugh, Ph.D., is a Professor of Biology and Director of the Harvey M. Picker Interdisciplinary Science Institute, at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. She received her M.Sc. in Biology from the University of Victoria (Canada) in 1987 and a Ph.D. in Biology from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1994. McHugh studies the ecology and evolution of marine invertebrate animals, particularly the diverse and beautiful polychaete annelid worms, and has published many papers on annelid evolution.

McHugh’s teaching interests span a wide variety of courses that share a common thread of evolution. She believes, as T. Dobzhansky said, that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” all her courses, she likes to highlight the relevance of biology in our everyday lives, whether its understanding the genetic basis for a human disease, using phylogenetic analysis to evaluate biodiversity, or debating the issue of human cloning. McHugh teaches Genetics and Animal Evolution in addition to Introductory Biology.

Career Q&A

How did you choose your present profession?
I grew up on west coast of Ireland, playing in tidepools where I became intensely interested in marine animals. After high school, I took a year off before attending university to make sure I really wanted to study marine biology. In that time I found that yes, indeed, I really did want to study marine biology, so off I went.

In my senior year, I did a benthic survey in the south of Ireland measuring the impact of effluent from a chemical factory on the surrounding marine life. This work involved taking loads of mud samples and comparing the species diversity. I ended up analyzing the worm fauna for over a year with the help of a post-doc and from there I was hooked (no pun intended.)

What would you recommend for students wanting to pursue a similar career?
I would suggest going to university, studying biology and getting into a research project as soon as you can. Try all sorts of different projects, including field work, lab work; sample different kinds of research.

What do you like best about your profession?
I love the variety. I get to teach, to do research in the lab and field, interact with lots of people, and collaborate with lots of people. I do a lot of writing and reading. I very much enjoy being able to pursue a question over a number of years and trying to formulate a question more clearly. There is a general need for people who understand diversification of animals from an evolutionarily point of view to understand how diversity arose. Understanding that pathway helps inform conservation decisions and helps prioritize which species may be the most pivotal in order to preserve biodiversity.

What web sites and references would you recommend for viewers interested in your work that was featured in The Shape of Life series?

Annelids from the University of Arizona's Tree of Life

Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology

"Annelid phylogeny and the status of Sipuncula and Echiura." BMC Evolutionary Biology, 2007.

"Molecular analyses indicate gene flow among populations of Paralvinella pandorae, a polychaete annelid endemic to hydrothermal vents of the northeast Pacific." Marine Ecology, 2005.

"Molecular systematics of polychaetes (Annelida)." Hydrobiologia, 2005.

"Do life history traits account for diversity of polychaete annelids?" Invertebrate Biology, 2002.