Interview with a social insect scientist: Elizabeth Tibbetts

E TibbetsIS: Who are you and what do you do?

ET: My name is Elizabeth Tibbetts and I am a professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan.

IS: How did you end up researching social insects?

ET: I’m not one of the those people who always loved insects. In fact, I was pretty scared of them as a child. I decided to study social insects in graduate school because they seemed more tractable than vertebrates. I’m glad I did. I fell in love with wasps and haven’t looked back.

IS: What is your favourite social insect and why?

ET: My favourite social insects are Polistes paper wasps. I’ve become quite attached to them over the years. I love the way their social organization combines cooperation and conflict. Polistes form stable societies, but each wasp also has its own agenda. Sometimes individuals fight for supremacy within their group or leave their natal nest to reproduce independently. Polistes are also a great group to study my favourite topics: communication and cognition.

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

ET: My best moment of scientific discovery happened in graduate school when I figured out that Polistes fuscatus use their facial patterns for individual recognition. In my second year of graduate school, I noticed that Polistes fuscatus wasps have highly variable facial patterns. I followed up the observation with a few behavioural experiments. I still remember the thrill of analysing the data and realizing my experiment worked. Wasps really are capable of individual face recognition.

As a new graduate student, I wondered whether I could ever discover something new. People have been studying social insects for hundreds of years, so how could I hope to contribute anything? Over time, I’ve learned that there is no lack of exciting research questions in even the most common organism.

P fuscatus individual recognition

The distinctive facial markings of Polistes fuscatus. Photo: E. Tibbetts

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

ET: I teach animal behaviour classes at introductory and advanced levels. I’m sure I include more insect examples than many animal behaviour instructors. However, I try to limit myself. For some reason, introductory students tend to be more interested in whales than bees.

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

ET: I recommend “Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren. It’s a beautifully written memoir about her life as a plant geobiologist . The book does a great job of describing the ups and downs of life as a research scientist.

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

ET: In high school, I read all the books in the ‘Nature’ section of our public library. Some were great (“The Selfish Gene”, “Gorillas in the Mist”), while others were not so great (“The Naked Ape”). That section of the library is probably responsible for my decision to study biology as an undergrad and animal behaviour as a grad student.

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

ET: Most of my time outside of work is spent with my two kids (4 and 7 years old). We spend a lot of time playing Legos, pretending to be superheros, reading, and swimming.

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

ET: I remind myself that a scientific career is a marathon rather than a sprint, so there is no need to panic about a failed experiment or a rejected grant. There is usually lots of time to overcome challenges and turn things around.

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

ET: I would bring a satellite phone to call for help, fresh water, and a book to read while I wait.

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

ET: I’m grateful to my dad for instilling an early love of science. My graduate experience at Cornell was also very influential. There was a large, enthusiastic group of graduate students who had a big effect on my scientific development. My advisor, Kern Reeve, and committee, Tom Seeley, Elizabeth Adkins-Regan, and Cole Gilbert were also wonderful.

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

ET: Having a life outside work (hobbies, family) is compatible with being a successful scientist. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

Get in the habit of writing every day. You need to get your ideas into the world and effective writing is the best way to do it.


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