Susan Finkbeiner is an entomologist who trods through the rainforest and also struts the catwalks in designer fashion shows.
The glamorous photos of Finkbeiner belie her true profession as a highly regarded entomologist now teaching at Pepperdine University. The striking contrast of this fellow of the Smithsonian Institution and National Geographic explorer dressed in jungle togs and images of the statuesque beauty strutting the catwalk is hard to believe—but true.
Finkbeiner is an Ivy League-educated evolutionary biologist, ecologist and entomologist. After completing her PhD four years ago, she spent months in the jungles of Central and South America researching tropical butterflies.
“It was a lifelong dream of mine to study tropical insects,” she said in a recent conversation with The Malibu Times. “I’ve always spent a lot of time outdoors getting messy and dirty and studying anything I could find that had more than four legs—it always fascinated me.”
Growing up, this highly accomplished scientist said she was teased about her interest in insects and was told, “Bugs are not a girlie thing and bugs are gross—I had that stigma with me as a kid.”
But Finkbeiner continued studying her passion.
“Over time, people would be surprised to hear that I’m an entomologist. They’d say, ‘You don’t look like an entomologist,’ which confused me because what should a scientist should look like?” she questioned. The visiting professor said comics often portray entomologists as bumbling men “running around the jungle with butterfly nets tripping over themselves.”
Once, after a couple of months in the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest living out of a backpack, wearing muddy boots and with no electricity or internet, a friend suggested she try modeling.
“I thought it was a joke and then thought about it and decided it sounded fun,” she recalled. So, two years ago, the 5’8” stunner’s modeling career took off. She signed with an agency and soon booked work at London’s fashion week. Finkbeiner now struts the catwalk twice a year for spring/summer collections and fall/winter shows overseas. She just returned from her fifth fashion week in the UK.
With no classes on Fridays, the 32-year-old described a whirlwind “Cinderella” weekend recently leaving a Pepperdine lab on a Thursday evening to catch a redeye to London. By Friday evening, she was in fittings. Then on Saturday, she walked for eight different designers in two shows. She flew back on Sunday and by Monday at 9 a.m., was back in her classroom teaching.
Finkbeiner’s chief interest remains science. She has researched for major institutions on genomics and genome sequencing with butterflies— “Again people are like, ‘What? You’re like this crazy geneticist-scientist and you’re also a model? That doesn’t make sense.’”
According to Finkbeiner, she answers: “You can look however you want and do whatever you want. There’s this stereotype that girls shouldn’t like dirty bugs and that models shouldn’t have a PhD, but yes, you can be a runway model or any type of model. You can be educated. You can do all of these things. You don’t have to be just one thing. Who says an entomologist has to look a certain way?
“I started to realize I could use modeling as a tool to promote women in science and be a role model for young girls because I didn’t have that,” she said.
Finkbeiner grew up in a small town in Illinois. The idea of higher education, she said, seemed “far-fetched and so did modeling.”
It’s atypical to start a glamour job in one’s 30s, but she accomplished that too. Now 32, she said most people think she looks younger: “It’s good genes, I guess.”
Finkbeiner expected to be a lifestyle model in still photography shots of people doing everyday activities for advertisements, but her modeling agency said she was tall enough to meet the requirements for runway.
“Lo and behold, I was selected,” she said. “It was kind of unreal for me because I was about to be trained to walk in six-inch heels down a runway, but I just spent two months in boots in the Amazon. It’s so crazy and yet so cool at the same time.”
Finkbeiner towers an Amazonian six feet, two inches tall in runway shoes.
The visiting assistant professor teaches ecology for upper division biology majors and a course on plants for non-major students.
“Modeling is a rush. I love it,” the recent Malibu transplant stated. But, she added, “I love academia. I can’t believe how incredible the Pepperdine community, students and faculty here are. I’m super lucky. Malibu’s amazing. But, I consider modeling a hobby.”