Interview with a social insect scientist: Alex Wild

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IS: Who are you and what do you do?

AW: I am Alex Wild, Curator of Entomology at The University of Texas at Austin. I also run a small insect photography business. I suppose most people know me for the photos.

IS: How did you end up researching social insects?

AW: I wish I had a logical answer for why I’m so taken by social insects. But I don’t. I started early in life, so early that the infatuation seems to have been an inchoate, primordial fixation from a mis-wiring of my brain stem. I was collecting carpenter ants at five, for example, and many of my early childhood drawings depict crude tunnels of ant nests. I didn’t- and still don’t- know why I like social insects, though I can come up with all manner of post-hoc rationalizations.

True story. At age 8 an older cousin I did not know well inquired about my interests, as way of introductory small talk. I think she was expecting some standard answer like “Hockey” or “Video Games” or “Ice Cream” or whatever the kids liked those days. I announced, instead, “I like colony insects!”.

In college (Bowdoin), my ecology professor Nat Wheelwright explained me that one could actually have a career studying ants. I had no idea! Nat started me down a path that eventually led to taxonomy.

IS: What is your favourite social insect and why?

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A turtle ant- Cephalotes multispinosus. Photo credit: Katja Shulz/Flickr

AW: Turtle ants! Or maybe paper wasps? Hard to say. I love Iridomyrmex, in Australia, quietly running the continent while everyone else is distracted by the giant bull ants.

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

AW: I discovered a new genus of ant on Google once, in the early days of the internet. I didn’t do anything with it at the time. A year later, I stopped to watch the sunset in the middle of the Paraguayan Chaco and accidentally happened across a living colony of the same mystery ant. That was exciting- I recognized it right away. I worked with Fabiana Cuezzo to describe it formally as Gracilidris.

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

 AW: I teach Introductory Entomology at UT-Austin. It’s a challenging environment for a bug guy, as UT has no Entomology Department, so my little course is the only entomology most students get and few students have an entomological background. Of course, we use a lot of social insect examples in the lectures and labs.

I taught beekeeping at the University of Illinois for a couple years. It was a tremendous class. Universities would do well to invest more in small courses that combine hands-on activities with general biological theory. We covered both honey extraction and the debates over kin selection.

Mostly, though, I teach photography. Social insects occupy a special place for the insect photographer. Normally, the aesthetic challenge is to make alien-looking species appear relatable to the naïve human audience. Social insects anthropomorphize themselves. It’s much easier to take a compelling photograph of an ant- a photograph that non-biologists can relate to- than of a non-social beetle or fly.

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

AW: “Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren. Recommend!

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

AW: I often return to the concepts in Maynard Smith & Szathmary’s “Major Transitions in Evolution.”

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

AW: I kind of have my hobby for job. So I alternate between sleep, kid care, and hobby.

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

AW: I find point-mounting therapeutic. Doesn’t everyone? But, emotionally, I rely a great deal on my wife and two young children. Having kids has rather mellowed my outlook.

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

AW: Islands can be pretty depauperate. I’m more of a lowland forest guy. Am I allowed a boat with oars?

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

AW: My scientific instincts are moulded on those of my Ph.D. advisor, Phil Ward. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I am most influenced by my parents, neither of whom are scientists themselves but they knew how to play the long game by encouraging an inquisitive, social-insect obsessed young mind.

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

AW: Normally I’d advise not worrying too much about the particulars of how one enters science- there are many paths to get where you’d like to go, as well as many destinations you may not have thought of. At least, that’s how it’s been in recent decades.

But today? We live in a perilous time, and retreating inward to the lab is capitulation. I advise connecting with local universities, museums, non-profits, and other science organizations to engage aggressively in outreach. You’ll make connections that may prove valuable later in your career, and you’ll help ensure that basic science survives the current mess.

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