Interview with a social insect scientist: Franne Kamhi

IS: Who are you and what do you do?

FK: I am a post doc in Ajay Narendra’s lab at Macquarie University. I am interested in the neural mechanisms underlying ecologically relevant behaviour in an evolutionary context, focusing on ants. I am currently studying the neurobiological basis of visual navigation in Australian bull ants (Myrmecia) active in different temporal niches.

IS: How did you end up researching social insects?

FK: My background is in neuroscience and I worked in several neuroscience labs during college. While studying electrosensory systems in fish in my final year of college and adult neurogenesis in mice after I graduated I realized that I wanted to focus on the neural underpinnings of ecologically relevant behaviors. And I wanted to do field work in addition to working in a lab. For graduate school, I looked into several neuroethology labs and became fascinated by the questions about the neurobiology of ant social behaviour and colony organization that James Traniello and his lab group focused on.

IS: What is your favourite social insect and why?

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Oecophylla smaragdina Photo credit: F. Kamhi

FK: I have to say the Australasian weaver ant (Oecophylla smaragdina), also known as the green tree ant, the species I studied during my PhD. They are incredibly charismatic – they wave their antennae at me when I approach the nest and put up quite a fight when I collect them. They’re renowned for being one of the most socially complex species of ant and I could spout off all the reasons why, but one of the most impressive things I saw (and what solidified them as my favourite) was a nest that they built around the light fixture above the table on my porch. When the light was on, it inevitably attracted a lot of insects and the weaver ants would attack them and drag their prey into their perfectly positioned home.

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

FK: One exciting moment was when I finally got the weaver ants to eat a drug that I was trying to feed them to decrease octopamine, a neurotransmitter. I had spent a long time trying to get the concentration of honey water to drug just right so that it did not taste foul to the ants. Once I figured that out, it took only a couple weeks to test them and find that, as I hypothesized, it actually did reduce their level of aggression.

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

FK: I am not currently teaching, but hope to have the opportunity to do more in the future.

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

FK: I just moved to Sydney and have been on an Australian literature kick to familiarize myself with my new country of residence. The last book I read was Kate Grenville’s “Sarah Thornhill,” the sequel to “The Secret River” (which I read previously). Both are very well written, moving novels about a British convict and his family settling in what is now Sydney.

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

FK: I think several books influenced my research interests, but one that comes to mind is Georg Striedter’s “Principles of Brain Evolution,” which I read in a seminar in college.

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

FK: I enjoy spending time with my friends, whether having dinner parties or seeing live music. I also try to get out of the city as much as possible to go hiking and camping.

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

FK: I take a step back and go for a walk. Ice cream and chocolate are good. Also, I have a great support system of friends and family.

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

FK: I always hate these types of questions. Probably a good book, a blanket (can double as a towel), and sunscreen.

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

FK: I have had a lot of fantastic mentors, I don’t know how to choose just one! Chris Cain was my first research mentor. I decided to study neuroscience while working with him, and he’s the first person who ever suggested that I go to graduate school. Mark Braford was my honor’s supervisor and taught me a great deal about evolutionary neuroscience –working in his lab gave me the idea that I could combine fieldwork with neuroscience. And James Traniello, my PhD adviser, has been a fantastic mentor and is continuing to help me develop into an independent researcher.

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

FK: Find someone whose research interests you, contact them, and try it out!

 

 

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