Interview with a social insect scientist: Joel Woon

 

Working2 Credit Matt Jarvis

Photo credit: Matt Jarvis

 

IS: Who are you and what do you do?

JW: My name is Joel Shutt Woon, and I have just started a Ph.D. at the University of Liverpool, where I plan to research climatic tolerances of termite communities in Western Africa. However, as with all research projects, the fine details could change! Before this, I studied at Imperial College London for both my BSc in Zoology and MRes in Tropical Forest Ecology.

 

termites are working on tree bark. unite team work  for harmonious working.

Photo credit: Adobe

 

IS: How did you develop an interest in your research?

JW: I was lucky enough to grow up between two large parks in Sheffield, UK, which gave the perfect opportunity to immerse myself in nature. I’d spend hours exploring the forests, searching for insects and amphibians, or following bird calls to try to catch a glimpse of the culprit. This experience growing up developed into a love for the natural world and made my course choice at university very simple. At university, through my BSc and MRes, I found that tropical rainforests were the habitat that enticed me the most. The ability to study your passion in some of the most incredible environments in the world is extraordinary and something that I hope to do for a very long time. I have also discovered, mainly through the course of my MRes work, that I am captivated by entomology, and specifically termites. Their importance as ecosystem engineers, nutrient cyclers, pests, and a food source makes them fascinating to study, and to top it off I think they look charming, although I accept I might be alone in that.

 

termite

Photo credit: Adobe

 

IS: What is your favorite social insect and why?

JW: There are so many cool termites to choose! Globitermes globosus has a remarkable defensive strategy that involves biting an attacker, locking its jaw, and then secreting a sticky liquid out of its head. This causes the termite to ‘glue’ itself to the attacker (usually a pesky ant), immobilising it and giving time for other soldiers to arrive and workers to repair the nest. Hospitalitermes march through rainforests in groups, similar to army ants, and you can see where they’ve been after they’ve disappeared because all the wood in their path will have been cleared of microepiphytes, leaving a clean trail. Moreover, you have to admire the savannah species of Macrotermesfor the complex and massive nest structures they manage to build.

 

Cordyseps2 Credit Matt Jarvis

Photo credit: Matt Jarvis

 

Away from termites, Camponotus gigas (giant forest ants) are exciting to see around the forest; true gentle giants of the insect world! The size of them blew my mind when I first saw them. I also saw one infected with a cordyceps fungus – seeing a fungus growing out of a giant ant was like witnessing science fiction come to life!

 

african landscape with termitary

Photo credit: Adobe

 

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

JW: I’m still in the fledgling stages of my research career, so I haven’t had many “discoveries”, but finishing my first thermal tolerance experiment was an exciting moment. My supervisor had carried out the same tests on ants, so we started with low expectations of termite thermal tolerance and those expectations were exceeded! Also, walking out into the field to work on my own project for the first time was a huge moment for me. It was the realisation of a goal and a lot of hard work!

IS: Do you teach or do outreach/science communication? How do you incorporate your research into these areas?

JW: I don’t currently do outreach, as I am in the opening week of my Ph.D. as I write this, however, it is something that I want to develop. One of the biggest challenges we face as scientists is communicating our research to a broader audience. We can affect much more significant change if we communicate well than if we keep our work isolated within the scientific community. I think it is an area of science that needs a lot of improvement, and I want to contribute to that improvement.

 

Namibia termite mounds

Photo credit: Adobe

 

IS: What do you think are some of the important current questions in social insect research and what’s essential for future research?

JW: We need to further our understanding of how climate change will impact social insects and increase the power and accuracy of these predictions. Social insects are incredibly important to a myriad of ecosystems, in a plethora of different ways, so understanding how a changing climate will impact their roles within those ecosystems is essential. Will climate change cause species distributions to change? If social insect species are displaced from ecosystems, is there redundancy to cover the lost ecosystem services? How will social insects impact the ecosystems to which they get displaced? These questions remain important.

 

Macro of termites on the forest floor, Borneo, Malaysia

Photo credit: Adobe

 

IS: What research questions generate the biggest debate in social insect research at the moment?

JW: Quantifying and understanding the ecosystem services social insects provide is still a huge topic. Because many species of social insects are massively abundant, they can make huge impacts on ecosystems worldwide. Quantifying those impacts, and what happens to those ecosystems when social insects are excluded, is extremely important. It not only allows us to understand the relative importance of species, but also apply ecological and monetary values to them (regarding ecosystem services and damage caused), which is extremely useful in our modern world.

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

JW: I just finished the Conclave of Shadows saga by Raymond E. Feist, which is the fourth saga set in the fictional world of Midkemia. I would recommend reading Feist’s first book, The Magician, to all fans of fantasy, as it is an excellent and archetypal mythical story that many modern classics borrow from. I’m also reading The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, which is a fascinating popular science book for people like me who haven’t had much experience in dendrology.

scuda diving

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

JW: My main passion, aside from research, is travelling. I love immersing myself in new cultures, having new experiences, and seeing new environments. Through travelling, I’ve been lucky enough to visit some of the most amazing areas for marine life in the world, which has fostered a passion for scuba diving. Scuba diving is a very surreal and exhilarating experience and one I would recommend everyone try at least once. There is nothing else like it. When I’m back in the UK, my main hobby is playing a card game called Magic: The Gathering. It’s incredibly exciting and complex (it holds the world record for the game with most rules!) and has so much variation while challenging the player to think and strategise well.

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

JW: I think it’s essential to have a dependable support network for you to fall back on. Whether that’s scientific support or emotional support, having people who you can talk to openly and honestly and rely on for help allows you to work through all sorts of issues. I also think you need to have a hobby that you can step away to. Whether it’s for an hour, a day, or a week, you need something that is unrelated to research that you can occupy yourself with, and that will allow you to diffuse any negativity towards your work.

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

JW: I would take an e-reader filled with books (including multiple on how to survive in the wild), a solar charger, and a satellite phone to ring for help when something inevitably goes wrong.

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

JW: As with many biologists of my generation, the person who started me down the path I’m on is Sir David Attenborough. His documentaries opened my eyes to the incredible diversity and majesty of nature and made me want to pursue a career studying it. In a more practical sense, Mike Boyle, my friend and MRes supervisor, has also contributed massively to my development as a scientist, providing invaluable support, advice, and training as well as a healthy dose of realism.

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

JW: Be inquisitive and ask questions, and follow what you find interesting. Scour the internet/ library, go bug hunting in a garden, or contact experts! Most scientists love to share their research; whether you’re a grade school student or undergraduate, an amateur or a professional – if you reach out to people in your community, it is incredibly likely that you will get a response and tap into a source of knowledge that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. So send an email or two, ask a few questions, and see where it takes you!

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