Interview with a social insect scientist: Miriam Richards

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Moonshine, Miriam and Blueberry. Photo credit: Michele du Moulin

IS: Who are you and what do you do?

MR: Miriam Richards – I am a professor at Brock University, in the Niagara Region of southern Ontario, Canada. I teach courses in Animal Behaviour, Ecology, and Evolution. I do research on the social behaviour, ecology and evolution of carpenter and sweat bees, and on restoration of local bee communities. I also spend a lot of time gardening and communing with farm animals – this fits right in as applied ecology and animal behaviour.

 IS: How did you end up researching social insects?

 MR: I’ve always been interested in animals and as far back as I can remember thinking about what I would be when I grew up, it was related to animals. By grade 8 I wanted to study animal behaviour and ecology, but I was completely focussed on vertebrates. I first thought about comparative social behaviour in bees in my third year Animal Behaviour course (the same one I teach now!) when I wrote an essay on the evolution of sociality in bees. That was about 1982, and I must have read Michener’s work, but I don’t have the essay any more to check it out. And besides, I was fully occupied studying common tern behaviour (my undergrad thesis and first publication) and then snow goose demography (my MSc thesis). And I really wanted to be a zookeeper and breed endangered species.

My MSc experience was traumatic and nearly the end of my career in science. We decided to have a baby during grad school, because in the mid-1980s, being a pregnant post-doc or new faculty member was clearly a stressful thing. Unfortunately, being a pregnant grad student also turned out to be stressful – such a thing was practically unheard of then. When my supervisor learned I was pregnant, he told the lab technician that this proved I wasn’t serious about research. A member of my committee informed me (and several other members of the lab) that women with small children really couldn’t do science. I managed to finish my MSc, but decided to abandon research as a career.

Over the next couple years, I worked at a pet store, as a secretary for my husband’s PhD supervisor at York University in Toronto, then as a zookeeper at the Metro Zoo in Toronto, thought about various options, like medical school and environmental law, and realized they were not for me. While I was a secretary, I heard about a new professor who had just been hired at York, who studied bees and was interested in doing molecular ecology (although it was not called that yet). This was Laurence Packer, and after I realized that being a zookeeper meant feeding and cleaning, not saving animals from extinction, I finally made my mind up to do a PhD. I joined Laurence’s lab as his first grad student. That was a fateful decision – I got to know bees, and I adore the science of social evolution. And after a few more years of fateful twists and turns, I got really lucky and landed a job at Brock. And here I am!

IS: What is your favourite social insect and why?

MR: My favourite social insect is Xylocopa virginica. Talk about charismatic microfauna! It has everything going for it: it’s big enough to see and readily identifiable. It lives in social groups that are organized in ways that are very different from eusocial bees, even from the primitively eusocial bees that we still love to study. It is becoming very common in southern Ontario, so it is easy to find. The males also have interesting social behaviour. And the males’ antics as they guard territories are hilarious.

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Xylocopa virginica at her nest entrance. Photo credit: Lyndon Duff

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

MR: That’s a hard question, because we have lots of great moments, and I don’t look back on great moments and compare them to now. I really like when we find some new behaviour, especially something that is unusual or contradicts a major theoretical paradigm, but I am not sure what I’ve done that is more important. I think the best moments are when students confidently and authoritatively describe their work, or when they stand up to my arguments and bring me over to their point of view. Then I see that they have become scientists, and I feel like I’ve done my job.

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

 MR: I’m in a very small department, so I teach all sorts of general topics, from introductory ecology and evolution, to animal behaviour, molecular ecology, behaviour genetics, etc. I use social insect examples in my teaching all the time, including analysing data sets that we’ve already published (or not). More importantly, my teaching has shaped my research. For instance, there are major differences in the way scientists think about insect versus animal sociality, and sometimes I think that insect sociobiologists need to broaden their definitions a bit. Our entire line of research monitoring bee communities in restored landfill sites was largely inspired by my teaching community and ecosystem ecology, fields way outside my research comfort zone.

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

MR: I mostly read murder mysteries, for their escapist value. Every so often I read a science book, but only in the summer when I can focus. I am about to read Clutton-Brock’s new book on mammal societies.

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

MR: Michener’s 1974 book is one of my favourites – I still use it when I need a quick synopsis of the social behaviour of some group that I don’t really know much about. In the last few years, I’ve begun to realize that it is getting out of date, but it is 40 years old, after all. I still recommend it to new students, though.

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

MR: The absolute joy of our lives is our 2-year old granddaughter, but it’s a long distance relationship that is maintained by Skype and visits every few months. I love being outside tending my garden and my animals. Recently, I bought a mule named Moonshine. He’s so much fun to ride through the woods. I am also training one of my donkeys to become a saddle and cart donkey for my grand-daughter.

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

MR: One of my great discoveries in life is that my outlook is actually quite independent of my circumstances. For instance, I am often tired, cranky and depressed in February. It’s easy to find reasons to explain this to myself, so I try to remember that I am one of the luckiest people on the planet. I have a great job, I live in a great house on a fabulous little hobby farm, we’re all healthy and busy, my graduate students generally have been successful and done interesting work, my undergraduates sometimes tell me I inspire them, and every so often somebody is appreciative for the work I do. Of course I have low moments, but very few of them are “real”, just irritating foibles of brain chemistry, I think.

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

MR: I need to bring my husband, my camera, and a guidebook. I need the guidebook so I don’t miss anything great, the camera to record it because I look at things more carefully when I take pictures, and my husband, because it’s always more fun when he’s along, too.

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

MR: Laurence Packer, my PhD supervisor, set me on my current path. He also helped me stay on that path, and has helped me to new opportunities over the years. And my husband, Adonis Skandalis, who is a molecular biologist and my chief scientific advisor, collaborator, and sounding board, even though we work on completely different topics.

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

MR: I encourage them not to put all their eggs in the academic basket. Research jobs are hard to come by and social insect jobs are harder still. Academic positions are the most obvious path into research, but not the only path. I think the incredible growth of citizen science will present a lot of opportunities for people with scientific training to do science, even if they don’t get to call themselves scientists on their tax returns. Science is a way of knowing – and a way of life, too. Let’s go back to a time when scientists were people who made discoveries using scientific method, even if you earn a living doing something else.

 

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Xylocopa virginica female foraging. Photo credit: Lyndon Duff

One thought on “Interview with a social insect scientist: Miriam Richards

  1. Pingback: Interview with a social insect scientist: Miriam Richards — insectessociaux | Brock Bee Lab

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