Interview with a social insect scientist: Boris Baer

Curtin University Centre for Integrative Bee Research director Dr Boris Baer is concerned about bee biosecurity in Albany and Denmark. Picture: UWA

IS: Who are you and what do you do?

BB: I am a researcher at the Centre for Integrative Bee Research (CIBER) at the University of Western Australia using honey bees and leaf cutting ants as my preferred research pets. I was trained as a classical behavioural ecologist but now try to use tools from systems biology such as proteomics to understand how life history traits related to reproduction or immunity are determined through the complex interactions of protein and metabolite networks.

IS: How did you end up researching social insects?

BB: I always had a crush for insects, but regarded that more as a hobby while doing research on “real animals”. In my case that was a small monkey that I chased through South American rainforests as part of my Honours thesis. As I had spectacularly little success with the monkeys, I became increasingly drawn to social insects, especially after I saw the amazing diversity of orchid- and stingless bees, and my first encounters with fully grown colonies of army- and leaf-cutter ants.

IS: What is your favourite social insect and why?

P1000826BB: I don’t have a specific species that I would call my preferred pet. The most amazing thing for me is not so much that these insects are social, but the amazing variation we see between species. Having said this, bees just give me a tiny little extra kick.

IS: What is the best moment/discovery in your research so far? What made it so memorable?

BB: I conducted the field research of my Honours thesis on a field station in French Guiana, located a two-day trip by car, boat and foot away from the next human settlement in the jungle. To observe our study animals in their habitat, we installed ropes and wooden platforms into some of these giant rainforest trees. Climbing up there into the canopy for the first time a good 30+ meters gave me the ultimate kick. Hanging on a small rope 30 meters above ground was the scariest thing in my life and turned me into an endorphin junky. However, sitting up there and seeing this carpet of green, completely unspoiled rainforest to the horizon was a key event that lead me to continue a career in science.

IS: If teaching is part of your work, what courses do you teach? Has your work on social insects helped to shape your teaching?

BB: I am teaching in Biology and Agriculture. Using social insects for my research makes teaching so much easier, because it is easy to get students interested in a topic.

IS: What is the last book you read? Would you recommend it? Why or why not?

BB: The Beekeeper’s Pupil by Sara George, which might read a bit nerdy, because it is a book about honeybees. The book is based on a true story, that took place in the 17th century and describes the research that revealed the first insights into the life history of honey bees and their sex life. The most fascinating bit of the book is that the main character of the book doing the research is blind. He therefore needed to train a man servant to do the practical work and describes his observations to him. It is therefore not only a book about bees, but also about science and how to progress it.

IS: Did any one book have a major influence in shaping your career? What was the book and how did it affect you?

BB: I was still a boy when I got the book Man Meets Dog by Konrad Lorenz. I was instantly fascinated by animal behaviour and as it was the high days of Ethology, I decided to become an ethologist. This had interesting side effects as I turned our dog into a scientific experiment and my parents had to protect the poor creature every now and then from being overused as a laboratory animal.

IS: Outside of science, what are your favourite activities, hobbies or sports?

BB: I like to go sailing, which is a wonderful opportunity to get unplugged from work. The boats used can easily tip over in high winds so I need to concentrate on the wind and water, so it is also a perfect way to escape daily life.

IS: If you were on an island and could only bring three things, what would you bring? Why?

BB: A tent, a magnifying glass and my wife. The tent is obvious; the magnifying glass is good to have a look around and apparently also gets a fire going. Based on my life experience so far, I see the presence of my wife as the best warrant to keep me alive.

IS: How do you keep going when things get tough?

BB: This must be clear by now from my answers above: First go sailing and if that does not help go and have a whinge* chat with my wife.

*IS note: in Australian English, ‘whinge’ means to whine or complain.

IS: Who do you think has had the greatest influence on your science career?

BB: My grandmother. She was fascinated by the natural sciences and her flat was something between a science library and a museum. She had a large collection of books on geology, astronomy or biology but her shelves also displayed all sorts of things such as rocks and bones, including a telescope that we used during summer nights to look at Mars. If she would have been born in modern times, there is no doubt that she would have become a scientist, but as a girls born 1901 into a family of bankers, there was no way for her to pursue such a career. I guess her way deal with this was to get her grandchildren fascinated in science. It worked.

IS: What advice would you give to a young person hoping to be a social insect researcher in the future?

BB: There is still so much we don’t know about these animals and we have so breathtakingly new methods and technologies available now to study and understand them, so if you have the slightest interest, then go for it! Unfortunately, we also live in a time where scientists need to constantly justify their existence and performance. My advice is to not let paper numbers, impact factors and key performance indicators dictate your career. Play that game but use the remaining academic freedom you have left to explore where your interests are and don’t be afraid to pursue the impossible.

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