Interview with a social insect scientist: Joan Herbers

herbers2009IS: Who are you and what do you do?

JH: I am Joan Herbers, a Professor at Ohio State University. For about 30 years, I studied social organization within ant colonies, focusing on conflict resolution. About 8 years ago I closed my ant lab and developed a second career on gender issues in science. Now I study humans instead of ants! The shift has been fun and invigorating, and last year I published a book “Part time on the Tenure Track“.

 IS: How did you end up researching social insects?

JH: As a grad student in the 70s, I took a course on optimization theory. At that time, the only biological paper that used linear programming was E.O. Wilson’s work on caste ratios. I read that paper and was hooked on the problem of optimizing work forces within social groups.

IS: What is your favourite social insect and why?

JH: Hands-down, my favourite is Temnothorax longispinosus. Not only is it cute and incredibly interesting, but studying its social ecology earned me tenure.

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

JH: After starting my first academic job (at the University of Vermont), I spent the first summer (1980) at the Huyck Preserve in New York, collecting ants, watching their behaviour etc. During the first week, I cracked open a stick and watched little black ants run around in my collecting pan. There were 2 queens! I thought “wow, that’s not supposed to happen”. Shortly thereafter I cracked open another stick and saw 3 queens running around the pan. After finding about 5 polygynous colonies, I realized that this was a real phenomenon and completely unexplored from an evolutionary perspective. So I started working on why colonies of T. longispinosus were polygynous, a problem that consumed me for more than a decade.

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

JH: I teach courses in evolution, ecology, and women’s studies. There is no doubt that working on social insects has provided me with a broader perspective on biological problems because they inherently present levels-of-selection thinking. And, being female-dominated societies, they provide lots of fodder for my women’s studies courses!

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

JH: Ron Rash’s novel “One Foot in Eden”. Rash writes stories about the people of Appalachia and I find his use of language and sense of place incredibly moving. Highly recommended also are his short stories.

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

JH: “Caste and Ecology in the Social Insects by Oster and Wilson was deeply influential. Wilson sent me preprints of the book to help with my dissertation writing, which was extremely kind. I have had all my students read that book to find ideas for thesis topics, because it remains a gold mine.

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

JH: I am an avid amateur violinist, and play string quartets on weekends. I also plunk around on the piano and am addicted to New York Times crossword puzzles.

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

JH: I am an optimist, and have had occasion in the past years to reflect deeply on how many good breaks I have had in life. I grew up in a loving family, have been married happily for 32 years, and have two wonderful children. We have enough money and live in a great city. The hand I have been dealt may not be a royal flush, but it surely is a winner.

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

JH: A deck of cards, because I know about 50 ways to play solitaire; my violin, which brings me great joy; and a copy of “Anna Karenina, perhaps the wisest and most compassionate novel ever written.

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

JH: In grad school I had a pretty serious case of the imposter syndrome. My department chair, Neena Schwartz, decided to meet weekly with the women grad students to discuss various issues about being a women in science. Learning from her that my insecurities were normal and gaining exposure to a powerful woman scientist helped me more than any other single experience.

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

JH: Study math and chemistry; they will keep doors open and give you tools to ask any questions about social insects that you can think of.

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