Interview with a social insect scientist: Tanya Latty

IS: Who are you and what do you do?

TL: My name is Tanya Latty and I am a lecturer/researcher in the Faculty of Agriculture and Environment at Sydney Uni. My research is focused mostly on collective and group behaviours in social insects like ants and bees, although I am also interested in integrated pest management and the management of pollinators in agricultural systems.

 IS: How did you end up researching social insects?

TL: I did my PhD on bark beetles which attack and kill live trees. The only way they can do this without being killed by the tree’s resin defences is to attack in enormous groups. Working with them got me really interested in understanding how insect groups are coordinated.

 IS: What is your favourite social insect and why?

TL: That’s a hard one- there are so many to choose from! Today, I’d have to say bull ants (Myrmecia sp) because they are so over-the-top aggressive. I love the way they charge at you as if they haven’t realized how much smaller they are- that, or they don’t care. Research-wise, my current favourites are Australian meat ants (Iridomyrmex purpureus). They build efficient transportation networks, farm hemipterans, and have beautiful nest mounds decorated with sticks and rocks.

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Iridomyrmex purpureus. Photo credit: Bill and Mark Bell/Flickr

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

 TL: My favourite moment has little to do with my actual research. I was finishing my first day of field work in the Canadian Rocky Mountains in an isolated patch of forest along a fire road. Just as I reached my car, I turned around in time to see an ENORMOUS cougar follow me out of the bush! Cougars are elusive and you really only see them if they are stalking you, which this one clearly was. I jumped in my car and watched in terrified awe as this pony-sized cat walked around my car a few times before getting bored and wandering back into the forest to stalk some other hapless PhD student. It was an amazing moment because almost no one ever sees cougars in the wild. I felt lucky because a) I hadn’t been eaten but also because b) I had a job that let me spend the whole summer in one of the most wild and beautiful places on earth.

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

TL: I teach Introduction to Entomology, Integrated Pest Management, and Insect Taxonomy and Systematics. I use a lot of social insect examples in all three courses.

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

TL: The last book I read was ‘The Martian’. I loved it because all the heroes are scientists. I’m currently re-reading ‘American Gods’ by Neil Gaimen. It’s awesome because it’s Neil Gaimen.

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

TL: I went through a phase of wanting to be an astronaut, so I was in love with the book ‘Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Race to the Moon’ written by Apollo astronaut Alan Shepherd. It actually had the opposite effect as I worked out the mortality rate of astronauts and decided it was too risky a career choice.

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

TL: I enjoy bushwalking, minding (and typically killing) plants in my veggie patch and hanging out with my family.

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

TL: I go and play with my three year old daughter. She thinks I’m a super hero.

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

TL: Food, a desalinisation device and a fully fuelled/equipped yacht. Because my goal would be to get off that island as fast as possible.

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

TL: My mum and dad. My mum let me keep all sorts of creepy crawly things in the house, even though she was terrified of them and they had an annoying tendency to escape. They are both scientists so I was very lucky to be exposed to lots of interesting things from a very early age.

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

 TL: That’s a tricky question. It’s a tough job market at the moment. I know firsthand how discouraging it can be when you are chasing down funding/jobs and worrying about whether or not you can continue as a researcher. That part sucks. But the flip side is that we get to study the things that we love and we get to surround ourselves with lovely, nerdy, passionate people who share our interests. It is not a guaranteed job, it’s not necessarily a stable job, but it IS a great job. I’d tell young researchers to stay positive and enjoy the ride. Even if it doesn’t work out in the end, you will have enjoyed yourself doing a job you loved- few people get that opportunity.

 

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