Interview with a social insect scientist: Jan Šobotník

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IS: Who are you and what do you do?

JS: My name is Jan Šobotník, and I am an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Forestry and Wood Sciences, Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague (Czech Republic). I am the head of the Termite Research Team (see https://termiti.fld.czu.cz/en/or https://www.facebook.com/TermiteResearchTeam/), a group of researchers and students working on the ecology of termites at the global scale.

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

JS: I began my research by studying the physiology and chemical ecology of termites, and gradually shifted into field research. I am always amazed by the incredible intricacy of tropical ecosystems and the role of termites as key players in these ecosystems.

IS: What is your favorite social insect and why?

JS: I am truly fascinated by the contrast between the vulnerability of termites and their dominance in tropical ecosystems – at our plot in Cameroon, there are about 5,000 termites per square meter! They function as ecosystem engineers, moving tons of material per hectare and year and fundamentally influencing not only terrestrial biomes but, through the release of greenhouse gases, the temperature at the global scale. However, when their environment becomes less controlled, they quickly become prey or die in a Petri dish within tens of minutes!

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

JS: I really enjoyed the work we did on Neocapritermes taracua. It is a common soil-feeding termite in French Guiana, and we described incredibly complex defensive mechanisms in workers. At the beginning of this work we didn’t know much about them, but we knew that we were dealing with a fascinating system. We have continued working with N. taracua in order to reveal as much as we can about their colonies.

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

JS: I participate in all these activities to a variable extent during the year, and, among others, I helped to create a documentary movie, “The World According to Termites”, which has been successful at documentary movie festivals such as Life Science Film Festival 2017 (major award) and Wildlife Vaasa Festival (winner of the science category).

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

JS: I think it is important to understand the evolution of eusociality. This research has been furthered by the rapid development of new sequencing tools, allowing us to study proximate developmental mechanisms and also infer new phylogenies of unprecedented resolution. Another important research question concerns the ecological performance of particular species: What makes some species more ecologically successful and others? These questions are fundamental and will help us understand which species are the most endangered by ongoing global changes!

Concerning future research, it is critical to reduce the negative impact of the human population on natural resources. Social insect habitats are being decimated by anthropogenic effects, which means that future scientists will not be able to study social insects in the same ways we do today.

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

JS: There is a little doubt that the modern sequencing approaches are changing science more than any other methods implemented in the past. So, in my opinion, the hot topic (beyond just social insect science) is how to deal with large datasets produced by new sequencing platforms.

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

JS: I recently finished reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. I think it provides an excellent survey of anthropogenic impact on the Earth. It is a distressing read, but I highly recommend it for people who are able to change their lifestyle.

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

JS: I like photography, especially insect macro photography, although I do not have much time to play with insects outside of field work. Additionally, I recently moved to a house in a village close to Prague, so I am trying to create an enjoyable garden for my family and me along with a small biodiversity hotspot with plants blossoming throughout the year, a water source, dead wood, open soil, etc.

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

JS: I try to stay on top of things, not take the challenges too seriously, and not consider myself too important. Also, of course, I take comfort in my family, kids, and friends.

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

JS: Professors from my studies and colleagues from universities and research centres have had the most considerable influence. Surely my ex-supervisor, late Prof. Pavel Štys, to name at least one.

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

JS: Never give up! It might be hard, but if you work hard, read a lot, and follow your dream, you will be successful!

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