Christine Picard, Ph.D., Director of the Forensic and Investigative Sciences program and associate professor of biology at the Purdue School of Science is one of the recipients of the 2020 Research Frontiers Trailblazer Award.
Established in 2010, the award recognizes outstanding IUPUI researchers who show promise in becoming nationally and internationally known for their research and creative activity. It is given to associate professors within the first three years of being appointed or promoted to that title.
If you know Dr. Christine Picard, you know her work with blow flies. What you may not know is Picard wasn’t always the biggest fan of bugs. “Growing up I was pretty afraid of insects, I got stung by a wasp early-on, so just that fear of being stung again permeated my life,” said Picard. “I’ve learned a lot more about insects, so the fear has subsided a lot more.”
While she may not have been that interested in bugs as a child, she was intrigued by science and nature. It was nurtured in part by National Geographic. “My dad had this collection of National Geographic magazines that dated back to the early 1900’s. Anytime I had a school project, I would go to the indices of the National Geographic and try to find some information based on that, or just flip through them. Still to this day, I love doing that,” said Picard. She adds true crime and forensics intersected with her interest in science.
Before becoming the remarkable and trailblazing scientist she is now, Picard had entertained the idea of becoming an FBI agent when she was a little girl. Instead, her life path would lead her to getting her bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry and a masters in organic chemistry. She wasn’t really thinking about forensic science at the time. “It wasn’t until I was working for this small start-up pharmaceutical company after finishing up my masters that I really started thinking, okay, I really need to figure out what I’m going to do,” said Picard. “I started thinking about all the things that interested and motivated me. Of course, science is one of them, and the true crime angle was something I was just obsessed over. I also had a fascination that was a bit rooted in the fear of insects.”
That combination would lead her to West Virginia University and her eventual Ph.D. advisor who worked in DNA based methods in forensic entomology. Forensic entomology is the study of insects and other arthropod biology related to criminal matters, like how long someone has been dead after a decomposed body is found. It was there that she started working with blow flies. “Blow flies are probably the most forensically relevant family of insects because of their ability to detect decomposition,” said Picard.
Since earning her Ph.D. in 2010, Picard has worked extensively with blow flies and has made discoveries that has had impacts globally on how blow flies are helpful in forensic investigations and how they can be used as environmental remote sensors. Picard's research has shown blow flies can be used to detect changes in the biological and chemical environment with little effort. It’s believed they will become an integral tool in the climate change prevention and monitoring toolbox.
Picard is also responsible for the discovery of the Lucilia cuprina in Indiana, an insect that previously only populated the southern states. She and other researchers recorded the species of blow fly more than two dozen times from 2015 to 2017 in parks and other places throughout central Indiana, an indication of a changing climate.
While Picard’s research has focused mainly on understanding and correlations between genotype and phenotypes specifically related to insects, and many of them in the lab are forensically relevant, she has expanded her lab to include others as she digs deeper into climate change and the correlation with insects. More specifically, bugs that can be used for human food and animal feed.
“Human populations are continuing to increase and the stress on protein production is increasing at an unsustainable rate, not even considering climate change,” said Picard. “Once you start considering climate change, then that becomes even more dangerous. The climate is constantly threatening our food security, so insects are one way around that.”
Using insects as human food and animal feed is just one of the areas Picard is currently researching. Her work is on optimizing mass insect production, making sure the insects are not prone to disease and creating insects that grow faster. “We have to understand its very basic biology, we have to understand how the genetics of the organisms relates to some behavior, some phenotype about the organism before mass production can be optimized,” said Picard. “I’m just using all the information and the skills I’ve gained working with blow flies, I’m just applying it to a different organism.”
It’s work like this that caught the attention of not only her colleagues but others across the nation and world, making her the perfect candidate for the Research Frontiers Trailblazer Award. In her nomination letter, this was stated: “Being a fly scientist all my career, I know most all of the researchers in this arena and everyone considers her one of the bright and shining stars. She has an excellent reputation within numerous research areas,” said John G. Stoffolano, Jr., Ph.D. from University of Massachusetts of Amherst.
Picard is a remarkable scientist making strides in forensic entomology research, but she won’t take all the credit. “Getting this award, it’s coming to me, but my students and the people I’ve had the pleasure of working with are the driving force behind all of this. I would really like to thank them for everything that they’ve done,” said Picard. “For their passion, for their love and their motivation to get this stuff done. Without them, I wouldn’t be here.”