Interview with a social insect scientist: Michael Breed

IS: Who are you and what do you do?

MB: My name is Michael Breed, and I am a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where I have taught since 1977. My chief passions are my research on social insect behaviour and ecology, and teaching animal behaviour. I also direct a Residential Academic Program with about 400 first year college students in one of my University’s dormitories, Baker Hall.

IS: How did you end up researching social insects?

MB: By good fortune I landed in graduate school at the University of Kansas. As an undergraduate I’d developed an interest in insects and I applied to graduate programs in entomology, but I didn’t have much of an idea about how to go about applying for graduate schools so I just applied to entomology programs that were ranked in the top ten by the National Research Council. I was pretty clueless about differences among programs and the importance of choosing an advisor. I also had money limitations and couldn’t make more than a couple of visits to check out programs. By very happy coincidence KU was close to my parents’ home in Kansas City and I went over to Lawrence and met Professors Michener (Mich), Taylor and Bell. I must have made a positive impression on Mich because later they offered me admission and Mich offered me an assistantship working on sweat bees. At that point I didn’t even know what a sweat bee was, but I was glad to have the job and to get started. It only took a week or two of doing experiments on Lasioglossum zephyrum for me to hooked, both on bees and on the study of social behaviour.

My story is pretty much the opposite of how I would advise one of my undergraduates when they’re applying to graduate school. It also shows how being a little random in making life choices can work out well.

Before leaving this topic, I want to mention that as an undergraduate I majored in both English Literature and Biology and I was equally interested in the two areas. I made my decision to apply to graduate school before I chose between literature and biology, based on my desire to teach at the college level. My self-perception was that I wanted to do the actual creative process, rather than study the results of the creative process. In literature, to me this would have meant a career in creative writing and I didn’t feel confident in my ability to succeed as a novelist. In science, the creative process of identifying a big question, proposing specific hypotheses, designing experiments, and interpreting the results seemed much more accessible. I’ve been very glad that I made this choice but I have also maintained my lifelong interest in literature.

IS: What is your favourite social insect and why?


Paraponera clavata. Photo: bathyporeia/Flickr

MB: Paraponera clavata, also known as the bullet ant or the giant tropical ant. I was at La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica in the early 1980s working on a cockroach project that wasn’t going well. I walked out to La Selva’s arboretum and sat on a log to think things through, and a Paraponera worker walked up close to where I was sitting. I had read about ponerines in Wilson’s Insect Societies and knew they were both fascinating and understudied and this Paraponera worker looked so studiable! And I would have to say cute in a puppy-like way! That one encounter started a super satisfying research thread that carried me back to La Selva nearly every year for two decades.

Ironically, Paraponera are no longer thought to be in the Ponerinae, but they hold their own little taxonomic niche and knowing about them still helps to inform understanding the evolution of social mechanisms in ants.

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

MB: I really like it when someone replicates a result I had or when I hit on the same result as a group working in parallel with me. This tells me that I’ve chosen a topic that other scientists think is interesting, and independent replication is rare in behaviour and ecology. The first instance I can think of this was when I was working on queen recognition in honeybees and it turned out that Rolf Boch and Roger Morse had been working along the same lines—I saw the two studies as mutually confirming and as together being more convincing than either would have been separately. Since then I’ve had this happen several other times, and each time I’ve thought it was very exciting to know that what I had thought/interpreted was more likely to be actually true.

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

MB: I teach animal behaviour to about 110 students each fall semester. Most of them are more interested in birds and mammals and I’ve had to adapt to addressing their interests but that doesn’t keep me from scattering in social insect examples along the way. Teaching remains exciting and challenging, in a good way, for me. The excitement comes from helping the students to understand concepts that have motivated me through my career. The challenge comes from the continuous change in the students. This year’s students are different in their needs and capabilities than last year’s, and over longer periods of time there is definitely major change—the gen-xers were so much different than the millennials and the post-millennials are yet different again. Nothing against the previous generations but I probably like the post-millennials the best—my current students are really delightful to work with. I hope that knowing about social behaviour on the level of insects helps me to be somewhat cognitive about the group personality of my students.

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

MB: I just finished Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. This is a classic, one of the progenitors of the genre of detective fiction, and I decided to re-read it as an escape from all the science stuff. I tend to have more than one book going at a time, so I’m also reading John Le Carre’s new George Smiley book, Call for the Dead, as well as Draft No. 4, On the Writing Process by John McPhee, and The Abundance, a collection of essays by Annie Dillard.

Of the four, I’d recommend reading Dillard to all biologists—there’s an essay in this book about viewing a solar eclipse that was originally published in Teaching a Stone to Talk that really resonated with me based on my experience seeing the eclipse this last August. McPhee’s take on the writing process is very unique, but I also think this book is a great read if you’re interested in the craft of writing. You have to have patience with Victorian prose and with a writer who apparently was paid by the word to read Collins, but there are real rewards in being immersed in such a well-crafted story.

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

MB: When I was a new graduate student, my major advisor, Charles Michener, gave me a copy of the proof of his book, The Social Behavior of the Bees, to read. The fascinating stuff in this book about bee behaviour shaped my graduate work and ultimately my career. It was published in 1974 and I think it’s still a great place for any bee biologist to start.

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

MB: Hiking, photography, attending theatre productions, and playing poker.

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

MB: I tend to use work to distract myself from distressing things, so if I have something difficult going on I’ll bury myself in work. Unfortunately, though, a career in science is a lot about rejection—journal submissions and grant proposals that are turned down—and it is key to be able to persist despite defeats. Like most people sometimes I have to fight self-doubt in the form of imposter syndrome. The sheer joys of discovery and of working with students serve as great counterbalances to occasional feelings of inadequacy. Having supportive family, good friends and positive social relationships really helps.

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

MB: My wife, Cheryl, a dog (we’d have to get a new one as ours passed away last spring), and writing materials. If a person and a dog don’t count as “things” then I’d say writing materials, a computer chess game, and hiking shoes.

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

MB: Without a doubt, my major professor, Charles Michener. He was a kind and generous mentor. I wrote an essay for this same blog about him that talks about what a great mentor he was:

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

MB: Use your time effectively. I have an old New Yorker cartoon on my desk that shows deadlines arriving like waves rolling into a beach that I look at when I’m tempted to procrastinate. Keeping on top of what needs to be done next is so very important. Do the most important thing first, not the easiest thing. Don’t mistake answering emails for actually getting work done. But also keep in mind that to be effective in your work you need to eat well, sleep, exercise and have a social life.


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