Patty Rodriguez Brennan awarded the Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship

Patty Rodriguez Brennan, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences, is awarded the Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship.

“Imagine the funkiest thing you’ve ever smelled, with undertones of garlic and decay. It’s indescribable”. This is the result of Professor Patty Brennan’s casual invitation to “smell her hands”. Turns out, the smell of the dolphin penis is one that Chair of Biology Renae Brodie will never be able to unsmell, but as anyone in the biology department could understand, she was just too curious to turn down an invitation from Patty.

It’s not just the odors of Patty’s scholarship that can turn heads. Thanks to Patty, Clapp Laboratory houses a veritable panoply of vaginas and penises from every corner of the animal kingdom! Who among those present could forget the day a large and mysteriously smelly wooden crate was delivered to the first floor, and the delight for those seeing their first whale penis - which is, as you might infer, whale-sized. Patty’s work can be shocking, in the sense that it invites us to candidly consider and discuss bits that we humans often consider private – that is, genitals. She is an evolutionary morphologist - investigating the diverse genitalia of animals to understand how they function and what that function can tell us about the lifestyles of their owners, and about animal evolution writ large.

Patty’s research into the co-evolution of male and female genitalia provides compelling evidence of the sexual conflict and cooperation that drives evolutionary change, emphasizing the active and complex roles that females play in these processes. For example, one of Patty’s most celebrated discoveries is the cork-screw shape of the female duck’s vagina. This anatomical counter-coiling, a product of the evolutionary arms race between males and females, means that sex can only proceed when the female allows it. Contrary to the outdated notion that female reproductive strategies are passive, Patty’s research shows that females have evolved various anatomical features and behaviors to exert choice and control over mating and reproduction. Patty’s work has uncovered remarkable diversity and complexity of female genital structure and function across a wide variety of different species - from ducks to dolphins to alpacas to snakes - demonstrating that female genitalia, like male genitalia, have evolved through a variety of selective pressures. Patty’s research challenges anthropocentric and male-centric perspectives in science, highlighting the need for a more inclusive approach to studying sexual selection and reproductive biology. The Ig Nobel Prize for achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think,” got it right when it  included Patty among the “world’s top thinkers”. And the American Association for the Advancement of Science, National Science Foundation, and a plethora of plenary speaker committees, also got it right when they awarded Patty their highest awards and accolades, including recognition as one of the world’s most distinguished scientists as a AAAS fellow in 2022 and the highly prestigious NSF CAREER award in 2021. Moreover, Patty brings many Mount Holyoke students along this incredible research path with her, so far mentoring 42 students in independent research and supervised 10 theses. Patty and her students regularly present at conferences, with our students’ presenting original work associated with one of the most respected names in the field.

One of Patty’s most admirable qualities is her exceptional ability to communicate complex evolutionary concepts to a broad audience. Her work has been featured across a broad spectrum of media from the most prestigious peer-review journals to the New York Times science section to popular media like John Oliver, Steven Colbert, and Saturday Night Live...twice! She has engaged, illuminated, and redirected attacks on her research to improve public understanding and appreciation of science and how basic research can result in tangible yet unforeseen societal benefits.

Let us instead use Patty’s approach to understanding and candidly communicating about the world as an inspiration not to blush or shy away from uncommon topics, but to engage, inspire, delight, and be delighted by the natural world. In light of her outstanding scientific research, her mentoring of students at all stages of scientific inquiry, and her exceptional ability to communicate complex evolutionary concepts to a broad audience, we are delighted to present her with this year’s Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship.