Interview with a social insect scientist: Lori Lach

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Lori Lach

IS: Who are you and what do you do?

LL:  I am a mother and a wife and a Senior Lecturer (which is in between an Assistant Professor and an Associate Professor in the North American system) in the College of Science and Engineering at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia. I primarily research invasive social insects. In the past few years I’ve also been researching an emerging disease of honey bees and how it affects foraging behavior. I’ve lived in Australia for nearly 11 years and became a dual national (Australian-US) a couple years ago.

IS: How did you end up researching social insects?

LL: I’d been intrigued by ants during an ecology field course as an undergrad, but never really pursued it because at the time I had no idea how that would lead to a job of any kind. By the time I’d started my PhD years later I had become really interested in the consequences of biological invasions. I had the opportunity to do a summer project in Hawai’i while I was still figuring out what I would research, and while I was there I asked every scientist I met which invaders were the most overlooked and likely doing the most damage. Nine out of ten said ants, and the tenth said rats, so ants it was!

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Yellow crazy ants up close. Photo: Dave Wilson

IS: What is your favourite social insect and why?

LL: I’ve been fascinated by yellow crazy ants (Anoplolepis gracilipes) since I first encountered them in Hawai’i at the start of my PhD. They’re just such a conundrum—seemingly so flighty, timid, and disorganized, and yet capable of taking down organisms much larger than they are. Attract a few hundred to a lure, take it away, and it is just mass pandemonium, not the ho-hum retreat of Argentine or big-headed ants. I thought I would get a chance to study them more during my post-doc in Mauritius, but they were really kept in check by Technomyrmex albipes (who would’ve guessed?). But now around Cairns they are a big conservation issue, so I’m in the right place at the right time to work on cracking their secrets.

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A mass of yellow crazy ants next to a rainforest creek. Photo: Frank Teodo

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

LL: This is the hardest question. So far, I think discovery-wise it would have to be finding out the dramatic difference just a few invasive ants in flowers could make to the diversity and behavior of floral visitors, and I was able to show that in three different floral systems. When I started this work, most of the literature had been focused on consequences of the extraordinary abundance achieved by invasive ants and their interactions with ground fauna, so I felt like I was breaking new ground. I’ve had a couple people approach me at conferences and tell me they have been inspired by this work in deciding on their own research path. It is the best feeling to know that my discoveries are leading to others.

The best moment so far is right now. I’ve got some really great students working on a variety of really interesting projects, all involving different species of social insects. I also love that my knowledge of ant ecology, and yellow crazy ants in particular, is of direct use in efforts to protect the World Heritage rainforest from this invader. It’s a privilege to work with a really engaged community that supports science, and it’s exciting to have excellent collaborators with diverse sets of complementary skills.

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

LL: I had a research fellowship when I first started at James Cook University, so teaching has only recently become a substantial part of my work. I currently teach second year Ecology and a module of Field Ecology, and the occasional guest lectures in Tropical Entomology and Invertebrate Biology. Social insects figure prominently in the examples I use because they can be used to illustrate so many concepts, and really, they’re just so cool. Moreover, knowledge of social insect biology is really useful here in the tropics and can be an asset for graduates seeking employment.

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

LL: “Dark Places” by Kate Grenville. I love reading, and I’m opportunistically working my way through Miles Franklin nominated authors. I’d recommend it for the writing, which is exquisite, but not so much for the story. It was an apt title.

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

LL: “Ishmael”, by Daniel Quinn is one of several books I read while I was still considering what kind of career path I should follow. “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, was another. These books made me take a step back and question what I wanted my priorities to be. My initial plans were to go into medicine, but I ultimately decided that I should pursue a career in which my efforts were not meant to solely benefit humankind.

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

LL: I’m so lucky—I live in between two World Heritage Areas—the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics rainforest. So snorkelling, hiking, camping, and just spending time outside with my family top the list. On my to-do list for 2017 is to get back into karate. I was once a brown belt, but will now have to work my way up from white again.

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Lori and her family.

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

LL: I make sure that I stick with my exercise routine and spend time with my family. Stargazing provides instant perspective. It’s a reminder that we’re all just specks in space and time.

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

LL: My collecting kit, because islands are usually great places to collect invasive ants. A guide book to the flora and fauna, because islands often have weird and wonderful biota. And my journal, with lots of blank pages to fill.

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

LL: I owe a lot to whomever it was at the Australian Research Council who decided to offer prestigious early career research awards that explicitly allowed for career interruptions (e.g., parenthood or “misadventure”). At the time I applied, I had worked part-time for five years following the birth of my son in 2007. Of course I still published during that time, but was unlikely to be competitive for jobs against others who had worked full-time. If I hadn’t been awarded one of those fellowships, it is highly unlikely that I would still be a scientist today. I recently learned that until 1966, a woman working in the public service in Australia was forced to resign if she married. So Australia has come a long way.

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

LL: Take advantage of every opportunity to learn skills in a variety of disciplines—ecology, chemistry, biogeography, genetics, genomics, proteomics, bioinformatics—to name a few, because they will probably all enable you to understand these fascinating creatures that little bit more.

 

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