Interview with a social insect scientist: Hollis Woodard

thumb_UCR S. Hollis Woodard 2016 64 copy_1024IS: Who are you and what do you do?

HW: My name is Hollis Woodard and I’m a bumble bee biologist and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Entomology at UC Riverside. My lab group works on all sorts of things to do with bumble bees, including their nutritional biology, social organization, foraging ecology, and more.

IS: How did you end up researching social insects?

HW: I fell in love with social insects during college when I took an evolutionary biology class. We had a lecture on sociobiology and talked about insect societies and division of labor and I remember thinking it was the most interesting thing I’d ever thought about. I already had an incipient interest in social behaviour because I’d spent some time working at primate sanctuaries, and was thinking about going into primatology, but around the time I took this class I was also becoming interested in experimental biology and realized that insects would be a better way to go for taking that sort of approach in my research.


Photo: H. Woodard

IS: What is your favourite social insect and why?

HW: Bumble bees! The group has it all: they live in some unusual places (like the Arctic), they have solitary and social stages to their life cycle, socially parasitic lineages, unique thermoregulatory capabilities, they’re dominant pollinators in a lot of systems, they buzz pollinate, and so on. I’ll never get bored working on bumble bees. Lately I’ve gotten particularly interested in queen bumble bees, which are just so special because they undergo so many changes (behavioural and physiological) across their life cycle and face so many challenges, like having to survive through the winter and start new nests on their own in the spring before their workers emerge.

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

HW: One of the highlights of my career thus far was going to Alaska for the first time, in summer 2016, to start working with arctic bumble bees. I became fascinated with them when I read Bernd Heinrich’s book Bumblebee Economics as a graduate student and had been wanting to work in that system ever since, so it was gratifying to make that a reality. There is nothing like watching giant Alpinobombus queens fly around open tundra!


Searching for Arctic bumblebees.

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

HW: I teach an insect behaviour course for more senior undergraduates and I’m currently developing a new social insects course that I’ll teach for the first time next year, which I’m super excited about. We’re going to talk about theory in the class but I’m also going to heavily emphasize all of the insights we’ve gained through molecular work, especially in the last decade. There’s an awful lot to talk about.

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

HW: The last book I read was Bernd Heinrich’s The Thermal Warriors, which is all about how insects deal with thermoregulatory challenges. It’s a fun read; it takes a complex subject in comparative physiology and makes it very accessible. I highly recommend it, and all of the other books Heinrich has written.

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

HW: E.O. Wilson’s autobiography, Naturalist. I read it the first time in one sitting. Reading it inspired me to go to graduate school and pursue a career in studying social insects. It includes such an interesting treatment of the history of the division between molecular and ecological research, and the idea that that division doesn’t really exist (which Wilson talks about a lot more in Consilience) was exciting to me, given that I was thinking a lot at the time about how to use approaches from molecular biology to study social evolution. Wilson’s passion for ants also really shines through in the book and it’s clear that he appreciates them both for their own sake and because they’re a lens through which you can understand life on Earth, in the broadest sense. That influences how I think about bumble bees: I’m enamoured with them but I also think they contain the answer to every fundamental question in biology.

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

HW: To be perfectly honest I don’t have too many hobbies outside of work, but I have been learning Taekwondo and I’m really liking it. I also love to go hiking and I have three Australian cattle dogs that keep me busy.

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

HW: I experienced burnout at the end of PhD and since then I’ve tried to take it a bit easy on myself and pace myself, when I can. I’ve incorporated more fieldwork into my research program, which gets me out of the lab and office, broadens my perspective, and helps keep me more physically active. I’ve also worked hard to cultivate a buoyant mindset; academia is full of crushing blows to the ego and you have to digest and move on quickly or you’ll get overwhelmed. I also have a lot of wonderful friends in my department who are also new professors and we support each other and celebrate when good things happen.

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

HW: That’s easy, I would bring my dogs, who aren’t ‘things’ to me but I hope would be fair game. They help keep me happy. Hopefully there would also be bumble bees on this island.

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

HW: My PhD advisor, Gene Robinson, has definitely had the greatest influence on my career. When I started graduate school I had a lot of enthusiasm but I didn’t have much research experience and I hadn’t learned how to think like a scientist yet. Gene taught me to think critically, think things through, and think big. I feel so fortunate to have been given the opportunity to learn with and from him.

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

HW: My advice would be to start by picking an organism and learning it well, then the specific research questions will follow. I floundered a bit at first with my bumble bee research because I didn’t really understand them at all – I hadn’t spent time getting to know them, so to speak. Things really picked up for me after I went to Israel to work in Guy Bloch’s lab, where I took a lot of time to sit and watch them, try different things out, and hang out and talk with other bumble bee biologists. The better you know your organism, the better you’re able to formulate solid questions and effectively answer them. All of the best experiments are designed in the context of the organism, in my opinion.