Interview with a social insect scientist: Mark Brown

IS: Who are you and what do you do?

MB: Mark Brown. I’m a Professor at Royal Holloway University of London, where I lead a research group that seeks to understand host-pathogen interactions in bumblebees, as well as aiding in the conservation of bumblebees. We also enjoy investigating other aspects of social insect biology.

IS: How did you end up researching social insects?

MB: In my 2nd year at university, I was lucky to have Deborah Gordon – ant biologist – as one of my tutors. After teaching me for a term, she asked me if I’d like to come and work for her as a field assistant in the desert in Arizona for the summer. I said yes, to a large degree because I thought it was an opportunity to combine biology with travel. But then I met the ants and fell in love (with the ants, I should add!), and since then it’s been social insects all the way!

IS: What is your favourite social insect and why?

MB: Can I ask for two? The first – Messor andrei – was the subject of my PhD research. They’re beautiful black ants, who make a habit of carrying seeds like parasols back to their nest. The second – Bombus lapidarius – I have yet to work on, but they’re a beautifully smart bumblebee that make the most elegant nests.


Bombus lapidarius, one of Mark’s favourite species. Photo credit: Jürgen Mangelsdorf / flickr

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

MB: That’s a tough one. Discovering that the parasite Crithidia bombi had a major impact on bumblebee fitness has to be up there, as before then it was seemingly a parasite without virulence. However, I think that work with Matthias Fürst, Dino McMahon, Juliet Osborne, and Robert Paxton, where we showed that honey bee pathogens spill over into wild bumblebee populations, is at the top. Understanding the dynamics of viral diseases in the field has important practical implications, as well as being exciting from a pure research perspective, and so our finding has had a real impact on the field.

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

MB: I teach courses in invertebrate biology, conservation biology, and a field course in ecology and conservation on the island of Samos, Greece. It’s surprising how often my examples involve social insects of one kind or another.  😉

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

MB: “A Place of Greater Safety” by Hilary Mantel. A character-focused history of the firestorm that was the French Revolution, this is definitely worth reading! Mantel writes incredibly incisively about people and their motivations, and how this shapes history. For anyone who wants to understand the politics of science, and how this can impact careers and the trajectory of science itself, this is a great primer.

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

MB: I read “The Trouble with Lichen” by John Wyndham when I was a teenager. This inspired me to become a research scientist (in particular, a biochemist, which lasted only until I realised that the ‘bio’ aspect was rather limited), and also to recognise that gender has a significant impact on recognition and career advancement in science (this was long before I’d heard of Rosalind Franklin). We still have a long way to go to make science a level-playing field for all genders and orientations, but it’s a goal we have to reach.

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

MB: Reading fantasy novels, and spending time with my nieces. It would be walking safaris through the Zambian bush, but I can’t afford to do it often enough to call it a hobby!

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

MB: I remember that I’m a very lucky man – I have a family, friends, and a job I love – and try to focus on the day-to-day until I get my perspective back.

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

MB: My husband, good Swiss chocolate, and an endless supply of paperback books (none of these need explanation!).

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

MB: My PhD supervisor, Deborah Gordon, taught me how to look at ants, and how to think and write like a scientist. Paul Schmid-Hempel, my post-doc boss, introduced me to the intriguing world of host-parasite interactions, and also taught me how to play the scientific game. I owe them both a huge debt.

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

MB: Get outside and watch the animals. If you can spend hours watching ants or bees (apologies to my termite and wasp colleagues!), and still come away fascinated, then you’ve got a good foundation to build on. If you decide it’s not for you, get another job, earn loads of money, and set up a charitable foundation to fund the research you’d like to see done.


Messor andrei, Mark’s first ant love. Photo credit: photographer (unknown) and / Wikimedia commons


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