By Alison Bowen
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Susan Finkbeiner lives what she refers to as a double life, she is both a scientist at the University of Chicago studying tropical butterflies and a model who jets away for the weekend to walk on international runways.
On a recent morning in Chicago, the weather was warm for February and rainy. Some Chicagoans might even have considered it tropical.
For Susan Finkbeiner, 30, wearing rain boots to trudge around the University of Chicago campus was a familiar feeling.
After all, the scientist does fieldwork in the Amazon rainforest, trudging around in the rain a world away from Chicago.
That morning in Hyde Park, Finkbeiner had pulled on rain boots. But just days earlier, she’d been striding in 6-inch heels.
That’s because Finkbeiner lives what she refers to as a double life, she is both a scientist at the University of Chicago studying tropical butterflies and a model who jets away for the weekend to walk on international runways.
“It’s this crazy Cinderella story. One month, I’m literally knee-deep in mud and covered in rain and romping through the jungle,” she said. “Five months later, I’m training to be a runway model. It’s absolutely insane.”
In February, Finkbeiner walked for nine designers in two shows during London’s Fashion Week. Leaving Chicago on a Wednesday red-eye flight, she revised two research papers on the plane and arrived Thursday, in plenty of time for Friday fittings. After hours getting her hair and makeup done Saturday morning, she spent the afternoon and evening walking in multiple shows.
“It’s just rush, rush, rush,” she said. “What got me hooked was the moment you step out, and it’s just lights, there’s music, but you just hear the flick of the cameras, and you just see a whole slew of photographers at the end of the runway. And I’m like, ‘I feel famous.'”
She added, “I’m used to being in front of crowds for speaking, at conferences and lecturing and that sort of thing, but this was so different. And I loved it because it was so different.”
In high school, Finkbeiner participated in beauty pageants, but never modeling. She said that during her fieldwork, walking rainforests throughout Ecuador, someone mentioned that she should consider modeling. She thought it was worth trying. At the time, she was at Boston University, where she worked as a researcher after getting her doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California at Irvine. She met with a modeling agency that began sending her to shows.
She loves, she said, the excitement.
“The modeling is something that’s out-of-this-world fun,” she said. “It’s an adrenaline rush.”
The day after her shows in London, she took a flight to O’Hare International Airport and was back at work Monday.
In her workspace at the University of Chicago’s Kronforst laboratory, where she is a postdoctoral research scholar in the Department of Ecology and Evolution, she showed visitors Heliconius butterflies pinned in drawers, marveling at their beauty.
She has received grants and honors from the Smithsonian and National Science Foundation, and her research aims to understand animal evolution across different geographic areas.
At the university greenhouse, on the top of a nearby building, she explained the different types of live butterflies. Black butterflies fluttered around inside their mesh homes, resting on branches. Finkbeiner pulled one out, carefully capturing it by gently folding its wings together, to show its patterns.
Ever since she was a child growing up in Rockford, Ill., she loved watching the Discovery Channel, which introduced her to science. And she loved bugs.
“I was obsessed with them,” she said. “I always had jars full of bugs with me.”
But she was told, “Bugs aren’t a girl thing.” She wants girls to know they can play in the dirt and study bugs and grow up to even work with them.
After all, she’s doing exactly what she wanted to as a little girl, spend all day staring at beautiful butterflies and studying them.
“They grow out of it because they’re told bugs aren’t for girls,” said Finkbeiner, who moved to Chicago from Boston in October. “No one should tell you what you should or shouldn’t do.”
People don’t have to be one thing or another, she said. She grew up dancing ballet, and she snowboards. She loves the Cubs. And she hopes to be an example of how scientists aren’t simply people who sit in a lab, and models aren’t simply people who look pretty.
“I really enjoy being a scientist, but a part of me likes to enter other worlds if I can,” she said.
Sometimes though, her worlds collide. Arriving at Heathrow for Fashion Week, she grabbed a copy of BBC Focus Magazine that included an article she’d written. Recently, she taped an interview for an upcoming PBS Nature episode “Sex, Lies and Butterflies” that will air in April.
While in London examining a flowing outfit for a show by designer Jolie, she was delighted to find the overthrow had a butterfly within its intricate beading.
“It was totally by chance,” she said.