Research Zoologist and Curator of Molluscs

Dr. Ellen Strong studying snails in a contaminated stream. Photo by Philippe Bouchet, Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris.
Dr. Ellen Strong studying snails in a contaminated stream. Photo by Philippe Bouchet, Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris.

Ellen Strong grew up in a small town in northern California. She collected and sorted minerals and shells she found along the beautiful rocky intertidal shores. Yet, it did not occur to her that she could have a career as a “malacologist” – a person who studies mollusks. While a college student at UC Berkeley, she took an introductory geology course on a whim, which eventually led her to the UC Museum of Paleontology where she was employed in her first museum job. She was inspired by her teacher to look closer at fossils of invertebrates (animals with no backbones) and wrote her undergraduate thesis on fossil gastropods (slugs and snails). She was hooked.

In 1992, Ellen arrived in Washington DC and earned a PhD at The George Washington University in the field of Biology on the anatomy of living gastropods. What excited her most about studying snails and other mollusks was understanding the roles of evolutionary and functional constraints in shaping morphology. Ellen came to the Smithsonian in 2004, as a Research Zoologist, to study the diversity and evolutionary relationships of freshwater and marine snails. Many of the freshwater species she studies live in water impacted by mining, damming, agricultural runoff, and other human-mediated impacts. Her work has taken her from the east to west coasts of the continental U.S., and as far as Hawaii, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Vanuatu, Malaysia, Australia and New Caledonia. Ellen is contributing to documenting and describing the biodiversity of snails, and helping inform how to conserve them, even as some are on the brink of extinction.