Interview with a social insect scientist: Mary Jane West-Eberhard


Polistes fuscatus, a representative of Mary Jane West-Eberhard’s favourite genus. Photo: John Brandauer/flickr

IS: Who are you and what do you do?

MJWE: Mary Jane West-Eberhard, retired research scientist, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Retired = working as usual for less pay.

IS: How did you end up researching social insects?

MJWE: The answer started when I was a little kid. My first pet (or so I thought) was a beautiful sweat bee that looked like a jewel. It landed on my arm when I was about nine years old. I thought it liked me. But then it stung me and flew away! That did it for the solitary Hymenoptera. But I liked wasps – they are perky and beautiful. I first paid attention to them when making an insect collection for a 4-H entomology project. Then, in college I wanted to do something on insect behaviour for my honors thesis at the University of Michigan. Henry Townes, a taxonomist of parasitoid Hymenoptera, suggested that I do it on Polistes. It was the dead of winter but I found some hibernating females and put them in a terrarium. They woke up immediately and immediately started to antennate each other and fight. I figured I couldn’t go wrong with those.

IS: What is your favourite social insect and why?

MJWE: My favourite is still Polistes. Every Polistes species has distinctive visible social displays, and they are always active. Seeing a new species always rewards you with something new and interesting. They never disappoint. I have worked on MANY species of wasps. Some, like Mischocyttarus, are very common in the tropics where I have lived, and they have open nests like Polistes. There are many species and I have tried looking at lots of them but they are unbearably dull compared to Polistes.

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

MJWE: I guess there are two kinds of excitement – discoveries during fieldwork, and making new connections (having new ideas). Maybe I can get away with giving more than one example, one for each decade of my fieldwork on social insects:

  • [as an undergrad] Seeing a mother cricket, who was caring for her nymphs, lay a tiny egg and then feed it to one of her nymphs! A trophic egg, like those of ants, but never before seen in a cricket.
  • [As a grad student] Seeing some marked Polistes females return to their single-queen natal nest site after hibernation, and start building nests together (the first direct field confirmation of the relatedness aspect of kin selection theory).
  • Discovering the complex dominance displays of Metabolybia queens toward each other, and the displays of workers toward them that indicated worker choice of queens – they actually dominated some of the queens into becoming workers!
  • Finding a nest of Zethus miniatus the very species studied long ago by Ducke in Brazil, famously a group living eumenine wasp used by Wheeler as a model transitional species.
  • Realizing (in the 1980s) that most alternative states considered “genetic polymorphisms” are actually condition-dependent polyphenisms and other kinds of non-genetically determined alternative forms – just like workers and queens. This undermined some assumptions of genetics and, within behaviour studies, ESS game theory, that predominated at the time.

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

MJWE: As a grad student I planned to become a college professor. But my job with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has been a research job; and my husband Bill has taught the courses I might have taught in the places we have lived. But I like to think that the general-scope writing I have done is a kind of teaching – “courses” on the evolution of insect societies, sexual and social selection, and development (including of behaviour) in relation to genetic evolution. I like to think that it helps researchers working on real organisms to see the general significance of their work.

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

MJWE: “Hillbilly Elegy,” by J.D. Vance. I recommend it because it describes some truly forgotten, especially by academics and politicians, elements of US society – their deep problems and why ignorance (including bigotry) is entrenched and difficult to deal with, for those (victims and idealists) who would try to find a way out of it.

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

MJWE: Mayr 1963, “Animal Species and Evolution.” A grad-student seminar (led by R.D. Alexander) read that book and we critically examined every page – every sentence. The book was mainly about speciation, but it was a summary of organismic evolutionary biology at that time. I still use it for history and references – as a marker of what was understood when I was a student, and what was not.

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

MJWE: My favourite activity is good conversation. “Good” means intelligent and entertaining (this does not necessarily mean intellectual and can be with small children or people without earphones on airplanes). It means open as well as considerate. Travel. Watching behaviour including of people, and trying to figure out what is going on in different settings, and why. My work and my family have always been my hobbies. Aerobics 3 times a week.


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

MJWE: A flashlight, a bottle of water, and a helicopter. The “why” seems self explanatory.

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

MJWE: Richard Alexander, my professor at the University of Michigan. He encouraged critical thinking and independence, and encouraged thinking about the general importance of my discoveries. He didn’t expect his students to work on aspects of his own research. He was bursting with original ideas and always talked about them. He didn’t worry about getting ripped off because he was publishing as fast as he talked.

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

MJWE: Choose a species or a taxon and resolve to become the world expert on it – to learn everything that is known about it, including classification, physiology, behaviour, evolutionary history. Then do whatever you have the greatest patience for. For example, I have no patience for making apparatus work in a lab. But I can watch animal behaviour for hours and hours without getting bored. Whatever you do, whether it is ecology, or library work, or laboratory experiments, or microscopic studies of morphology, be sure to spend SOME time observing behaviour, because that will give you clues about whatever you are trying to understand.



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