Staff Profile

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Shannon Hackett

The Richard and Jill Chaifetz Associate Curator of Birds

Negaunee Integrative Research Center
Evolutionary Biology

Here's how to reach me.

  • 312.665.7729 (office)
  • 312.665.7754 (fax)
  • 312.665.7457 (DNA Discovery Center and Pritzker Lab)

I am an Associate Curator in the Department of Zoology, and Head of the Field Museum's Bird Division. My research program focuses on describing patterns of avian diversity from different perspectives, across multiple time frames, throughout the taxonomic hierarchy and spanning geography. Fundamental to all these research areas are rigorous phylogenetic analyses.

I am actively collaborating with a number of other researchers on the Early Bird Project to determine patterns of phylogeny among major lineages of birds. Despite the contributions birds have made to science in general, until recently we had a very poor understanding of how the major lineages of birds are related to each other. See the Early Bird web site for more information about this project. I am also interesting in describing patterns of genetic diversity within and among populations of tropical birds (in the Neotropics, Africa, and Madagascar) and relating those patterns to biogeographic histories of these regions and to efforts to conserve biodiversity.

I would be pleased to supervise graduate students interested in molecular systematics and biogeography of birds at all hierarchical levels. The Field Museum has an excellent collection of birds (including genetic resources), as well as modern facilities for molecular systematics (Pritzker Lab) and morphometric/image analysis. I am also really interested in education and training of high school students and biology teachers and run summer internship programs that integrate high school students and biology teachers into Field Museum DNA-based research projects. See the link to the DNA Residency for High School Students and DNA Residency for Educators under Programs (Happening at the field) for more information.

I study the systematics and evolution of birds. What I do is use DNA sequences, morphology, and behavior to reconstruct how populations and species are related to one another—the tree of life. I’m interested in the same things you are interested in with respect to your own family tree. You might ask yourself why you look the way you do, behave the way you do, where your family traces its roots to. I am interested in these exact same things, only in birds.

I grew up in a small town in British Columbia, Canada, always feeling like the square peg in a round hole. I knew I was interested in the natural world, but didn’t know what that meant or what to do about it. My career counseling advice was--you are too smart to be a nurse, you should be a doctor. So, that’s what I went to do. It was a chance event, a undergraduate course on the Natural History of Vertebrates of British Columbia at the University of Victoria, that led me to birdwatching, and from there to working in the Royal British Columbia Museum and ultimately to graduate school in Louisiana (Geaux Tigers), a postdoctoral stint in New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, and then to the best job in the World, Curator of Birds at the Field Museum of Natural History. I didn’t find scientific role models in my community, and that’s why the DNA Discovery Center is so important to me. Every day we have the chance to let people know what we do and what nontraditional careers are available to young people interested in science. As is often the case for women in science, I am married to a man in science. My husband, John Bates, is the other Curator of Birds at Field Museum (you can see a profile under Notes in the July section of the DNA Discovery Center’s facebook page). We have a teenage son, who loves hockey (my other passion in life after my family and birds).

I am part of a large project called Early Bird. This project is highly collaborative, involving many people, institutions, and collections throughout the United States. Our main goal is to figure out the evolutionary relationships among all major groups of birds. Believe it or not, even a few years ago, we knew very little about how birds were related to each other. So far we have sequenced many different sections of DNA (pieces of genes) in the genome of more than 200 species of birds and their closest living relatives (crocodiles). From these data, we developed a family tree of birds (see one of the images in my December 2010 profile in the notes section of the DNA Discovery Center's facebook page). Through these genomic studies we are learning some unexpected things about familiar birds. Parrots and songbirds, like the Starred Robin (see image in the facebook profile), don’t look alike but are actually closely related. Flamingoes and Grebes (again see images below) are each other’s closest relatives. It turns out that much of current avian taxonomy does not reflect the actual genealogical history of birds. This work would not be possible without the large collections of specimens of birds in museums like Field Museum. We have over 500,000 specimens that we can use for DNA studies.

My new research project, The Emerging Pathogens Project, is an extension of Early Bird, and is a collaboration with Kevin White, PhD, the James and Karen Frank Family Professor in Human Genetics and Ecology and Evolution and Director of the Institute of Genomics and Systems Biology at the University of Chicago. This project studies birds and small mammals and the parasites and pathogens that live in and on them from a genomics and evolutionary perspective. DNA extracted from these animals, as well as the viruses, bacteria, parasites and other pathogens affecting them, will allow us to create an extensive database of emerging animal and pathogen biodiversity. Through these DNA data, we can begin to understand how diseases have evolved and what might happen as infectious organisms jump between animal species, allowing us to form a basis from which genomic changes in emerging pathogens can be discovered. We can also monitor any changes in the distribution and virulence of diseases that may threaten humans and other wildlife. To learn more about this project, check out Holly Lutz’s profile and questions and answers from November.

It’s an exciting time to be interested in birds because there is so much new knowledge being generated. That’s the main reason I love my job. Every day I have the chance to learn something nobody knew the day before. How cool is that!

Recent Blog Posts

Additional Information


  • Bachelor's of Science, University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
  • Master's of Science, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
  • Ph.D., Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Work experience

  • Head, Division of Birds, Field Museum of Natural History, 1995-
  • Co-Chair, Committee on Evolutionary Biology, University of Chicago, 2008-
  • Faculty Member, Committee on Evolutionary Biology, University of Chicago, 1996-
  • Postdoctoral Fellow, American Museum of Natural History, 1993 - 1995