Interview with a social insect scientist: Thiago Silva


IS: Who are you and what do you do?

TS: My name is Thiago Silva, and I am a researcher at the Universidade Federal do Paraná, Brazil. During my Msc. I studied the diversity of two genera of myrmicine ants (Acanthognathus and Strumigenys) in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest. My Ph.D. thesis stretched a bit to the morphological side, and I explored some aspects of the anatomy of several species of Strumigenys using web-based tools to annotate classes in online anatomic ontologies.

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

TS: As an undergraduate student, I became obsessed with insects, mostly wasps and grasshoppers. At the time, my supervisor (who is an ornithologist) was studying the edaphic fauna of one of the few national parks we have at the southern region of the Atlantic Forest. Knowing of my interest in insects, he invited me to study the ant fauna he collected at the site. With some reluctance (I really loved wasps) I accepted the challenge. When I laid eyes on my first mounted ant under the stereoscope, it was love at first sight.

IS: What is your favorite social insect and why?

TS: I love minute and shy social insects like Strumigenys inusitata. It is a bizarre-looking ant with a flattened head and a distinct hump over its mandibles (see image below). We do not know what the function of this structure is, but since most species belonging to this genus are slow-paced hunters living at the leaf-litter, we guess it might be related to a prey attraction strategy.


inusitata 600x

Scanning electron microscopy of the head of Strumigenys inusitata. Left is anterior. Note the distinct hump at the anterior margin of the head.


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

TS: I do not remember any specific great discoveries during my research. I think that seemingly-small everyday discoveries, such as learning a little bit about the morphology of a cool group, are the most memorable moments to me.

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

TS: I often talk about science and biology to undergraduate and graduate colleagues, whether in more casual settings at the university or during courses. I always try to highlight the importance of morphology to other disciplines in biology and how the study of phenotypes provides all sort of hints that enables us to understand a lot about biological systems.

Recently, I started talking more about representation of knowledge and the importance of clear communication in science. It is a somewhat new topic for me, so I am gradually incorporating these ideas in my talks.

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

TS: Since social insects are extremely complex, I think there are numerous important questions that have to be (and are being) addressed. I believe that the most essential one is how sociality came to be in different groups of insects. Although its partial understanding does not impede the exploration of other important aspects related to sociality, I think the complete understanding of the origin of sociality is a primary topic of research for social insect scientists worldwide.

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

TS: Terminology always strikes me as the hot topic in my field of research and I think I always focus on it when reading about social insects.

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

TS: The last non-fiction book I read was Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern. It is a fascinating book and I recommend it, especially in the current social and political global context. The book deals with the modern duality of culture and nature and how this polarity affects decision-making at different levels within modern society.

The last fiction books I read were Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and the graphic novel Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash by Dave McKean. I would recommend any of the Murakami’s books, but Kafka is a favorite of mine since the characters depart from the typical constructs the author used in his previous works. Also, I love Murakami’s magical realism and references to popular culture. Black Dog is a must-read for those who want to take a glimpse at the nightmarish effects of war and understand how the first world war affected (and still affects) people at local and global scales. The mixed painting styles used by McKean and how their interplay with the narrative makes the reading extremely joyous.

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

TS: I spend most of my time outside of academic grounds reading or writing. I also like to get on the road and travel to other places. Sometimes one’s own mind is the best hobby one can have.

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

TS: I write my concerns away. I discovered that it is a useful sort of therapy for me. It organizes my thoughts, clearing the path that leads to the most unstressful resolution of a problem.

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

TS: Paper, pencil and the opportunity to leave the island! As Donne said, ‘every man is a piece of the continent’. Although I am very fond of reclusion from time to time, it is nice to be with kin.

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

TS: My parents and brother. My mother is a former researcher in obstetrics and always studied postpartum wellness and scientific methodology. My brother is an archaeologist/anthropologist and has always been concerned with the relation of public patrimony (especially archaeological sites) and traditional communities. My father is not a researcher, but always shared with me the delights of investigation and discovery. I think that a person’s major influences are those that are closest to them, providing support and teachings wherever they go.

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

TS: Love what you do, try new things, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

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