Interview with a social insect scientist: Neil Tsutsui

neil

Neil Tsutsui in the field. Photo: Roberto Keller-Pérez

IS: Who are you and what do you do?

NT: I’m Neil Tsutsui, Professor of Arthropod Behavior at UC Berkeley, in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management.

IS: How did you end up researching social insects?

NT: Maybe a mix of fate and luck? As a child, the first thing I ever said that I wanted to be when I grew up was an entomologist, so I might have a genetic predisposition for it. My route was circuitous, though. I majored in Marine Biology as an undergrad, then started off in graduate school as a cell biologist, studying the Golgi apparatus. After deciding that I wanted to spend my career studying organisms rather than organelles, I jumped over to the lab of an evolutionary ecologist (Ted Case). There, I started working on a project using microsatellites to quantify gene flow across a hybrid zone of whiptail lizards. Andy Suarez was a graduate student in the same lab, and he was studying the impact of invasive Argentine ants on native ants and horned lizards. David Holway joined as a post-doc soon afterward. Since we were always chatting about Argentine ants, and they had colonies in the lab, it seemed like a good idea for me to do something with them, as well. Once I started seeing the genetic data from Californian populations of Argentine ants, it was obvious that something interesting was going on – they had very, very little genetic variation across long distances. Quite opposite to what I was seeing in my lizard data. I started spending more and more time on the Argentine ant project, and have continued with them ever since. I never finished the lizard project.

IS: What is your favourite social insect and why?

NT: Argentine ants have been like Karl von Frisch’s “magic well” for me, so I have great fondness for them. I’m becoming increasingly fascinated with Polyergus, though.

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

NT: Hard to say. Seeing the first population genetic data from native and introduced Argentine ants is up there: I was pretty surprised by the extreme differences in genetic diversity and spatial genetic structure. Later, our experimental confirmation of colony recognition cues was also fun – it was amazing to see Argentine ant nestmates attack each other when we altered their colony odors with synthetic hydrocarbons.

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

NT: I mainly teach Insect Behavior and senior seminars for undergraduates, plus the occasional graduate seminar on chemical ecology or other specialized topics. Social insect examples are very prominently on display throughout my Insect Behavior course.

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

NT: Just finished “The Left Hand of Darkness,” by Ursula Le Guin. Yes, recommended – a nice short read, but quite interesting.

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

NT: I don’t think that there was a single book, but a cumulative influence of National Geographic and Natural History magazines when younger, books by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins in high school, and, of course, E.O. Wilson later.

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

NT: Lots of different things, but none of them with any high level of proficiency: urban farming, birding, saltwater aquarium-keeping, parenting.

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

NT: Well, things are often tough in academia. Eventually you accept that sometimes you’ll be in over your head, it’ll just be too much, and you’ll fail. Reviews won’t get done, you’ll miss meetings, classes will go badly, etc. Over time, I’ve learned to say “no” to avoid having commitments pile up, and I’ve grown accustomed to just grinding through the tough patches and not letting the failures upset me too much.

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

NT: You mean that I’m stuck on the island forever? Then it’s gotta be something along the lines of solar still, fishing gear, and magnesium-flint firestarter.

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

NT: Probably my colleagues Andy Suarez and David Holway. Let’s get together for a reunion tour, guys!

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

NT: Well, there are lots of different ways of doing science, so the same formula won’t work for everyone. But I’d say one thing is to make sure that you’re always learning about things outside of your main field of interest. Even if you end up becoming a hyper-specialist in your own research, you’ll benefit from viewing the world through a broader lens.

 

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