Interview with social insect scientists: Kaleigh Fisher and Mari​ West

Kaleigh and Mari are authors of the recently published review article, ‘Are societies resilient? Challenges faced by social insects in a changing world’.

 

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Kaleigh Fisher doing fieldwork in Chiapas, Mexico

 

 

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Mari West

 

IS: Who are you and what do you do?

KF: I am a graduate student in the Woodard lab at the University of California, Riverside. I am using methods from insect behaviour, evolution, and sensory ecology to understand how taste operates in bumble bees.

MW: I am a 3rd-year graduate student in the Purcell Lab in the Entomology Department at the University of California, Riverside. I study non-reproductive division of labor in ants, with the goal of understanding how continuous size variation and differences in chemical cues among workers affect how tasks are partitioned in social insect colonies.

 

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Kaleigh Fisher doing fieldwork in Chiapas, Mexico

 

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

KF: I was interested in agroecology and started working in a lab that studies insects in shade coffee farms in Mexico. I became interested in the ants and the stingless bees in this system. The research was super exciting; it was my first introduction to social insects, and I have been working with them ever since.

MW: I first became interested in social insects as an undergraduate at Cornell University, where I worked in Dr. Linda Rayor’s lab, studying behavioral dynamics between reproductive females in social spider colonies. These spiders are usually very tolerant of each other but can become quite aggressive (to the point of being cannibalistic) when vying for reproductive opportunity. Later, while working with an invasive ant species that is highly polygyne and super-colonial, I realized that there was a vast spectrum of cooperative behaviors within social groups. Since this realization, I have been interested in how social insects can coordinate these collective behaviors without any central control.

IS: What is your favorite social insect and why?

KF: My favorite social insects are the stingless bees. They are so interesting both biologically (eusocial, ~500 species) and culturally (long history of stingless beekeeping in Mexico). I worked with them briefly before starting to work with bumblebees and hope to have the opportunity to work with them in the future.

MW: Why do I have to have a favorite? They’re all awesome in their own ways.

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

KF: I think the best moment in my research so far happened a few weeks into my first field season on a shade coffee farm in Mexico for my master’s research. I stopped and thought, “wow this is awesome, I can’t believe this is my job!” It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all of the components involved with being in academia; I think it’s important to remind myself from time to time how exciting it is to ask a question about why or how insects are doing something, especially in the field, and then figure out a way to answer it. I realized how awesome that is in this moment. 

MW: Before I started my graduate work, I volunteered for a research project with the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Crazy Ant Strike Team, whose goal is to eradicate the invasive yellow crazy ant from a Pacific island. The island serves as important nesting habitat for ground-nesting seabirds, which the ants significantly disrupt. My crew’s goal was to test a few different control/eradication strategies so that the next team could implement the most effective one. The project has been very successful, leading to almost complete eradication of the ants and a significant recovery in seabird reproduction on this island! It feels incredible to have been involved in a conservation project that has made a positive and lasting impact!

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

KF: Yes, to both; I enjoy teaching (I have only had the opportunity to be a teaching assistant so far) and doing outreach. Depending on what I am teaching, I try to use relevant examples from social insects, especially bumblebees. I also really enjoy outreach. Depending on the group, I will introduce my specific research and why I do it or discuss the importance of pollinators and insects in general.

MW: Both as an undergraduate and graduate student researcher, I have been lucky to be part of entomology departments with strong focuses on outreach and I have been involved in many large-scale insect fairs throughout my academic career. Additionally, I have made it into many K-12 classrooms through these programs. I always try to incorporate my research into outreach events by introducing the basics of the colonial lifestyle and cooperative behavior of social insects. For more advanced audiences, I will also explain my experimental designs and findings.

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

KF: A question that I am interested in is how environmental context shapes social behaviour. A lot of super informative research about insect sociality has come out of laboratory studies. I think building on those findings to capture how variable they are across different populations and species is essential.

MW: If you read our paper, Fisher & West et al. 2018, then you already know. 🙂

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

MW: My general feeling is that a lot of debate surrounds honeybees – whether or not they are good/necessary for ecosystem functioning and whether their long history of being farmed makes them a useful model system for studying social insects.

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

KF: The last book I read was the Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy. It is fiction, but it has powerful social and political commentaries about current events in India and globally. I enjoyed it, so I would recommend it to those who enjoy novels with strong social commentaries.

MW: The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair. It’s certainly not very upbeat, but I do think it is relevant to some social and economic issues that our world faces today.  It was a thought-provoking read.

 

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Kaleigh Fisher and family in Chiapas, Mexico

 

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

KF: Outside of science, I like to spend time with my family (hiking, gardening, cooking together).

MW: Hiking and baking. I like exploring the outdoors, mainly to observe wild animals in their natural environment, and working with my hands to make something tasty to share with others.

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

KF: Whenever I feel overwhelmed, I try to step away from everything for a moment, even if that means just going for a walk, so that I can get a better perspective on everything.

MW: I usually remind myself how lucky I am that my job brings me outdoors on a regular basis and keeps me intellectually engaged. I try to give myself some time to relax outside, to reflect and refresh my outlook on life.

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

KF: I would bring my partner because he is an expert field biologist and awesome human, and a notebook and a pen (to help organize my thoughts/ideas).

MW: Having previously lived on an uninhabited island to which I was able to bring pretty much everything I ever wanted, this is a tough question to answer. However, if I had to choose, I would bring a snorkel for exploring the coral reefs (and maybe making fishing a little easier), some sunblock, and someone with whom to share the experience. In my experience, you don’t need much more.

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

KF: I think my master’s thesis advisors have had the most significant influence on my scientific career. They have inspired me to be inherently curious about insects while simultaneously instilling in me the importance of doing science consciously and with a moral compass.

MW: Without Dr. Linda Rayor’s influence, I probably wouldn’t be studying social insects today. She was an incredible mentor, and her enthusiasm for and ability to communicate about her science caught my attention immediately. In addition to getting me interested in social insect behavior, she has inspired me to share my science with others around me.

 

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A bumblebee foraging experiment conducted by Kaleigh Fisher

 

 

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Ant abdomen painted by Mari West during a mark-recapture experiment

 

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

KF: Give yourself time to explore what kind of research you are passionate about. Being excited about the questions you are asking and the research you are doing is what it is all about.

MW: I would encourage them to spend some time working on different projects so that they can identify the questions that they are most excited about and learn about what kinds of experimental design work well for those questions. I would also encourage them to spend many hours watching their study organisms, for fun and inspiration.

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