Interview with a social insect scientist: Anindita Brahma

Anindita Brahma (2)

IS: Who are you and what do you do?

AB: I am Anindita Brahma, recently completed Ph.D. from Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and currently I am a Marie Sklodowska-Curie postdoctoral fellow at Queen Mary University of London. My primary research interest is understanding the proximate and ultimate causes of the evolution of social behaviour.

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

AB: I developed a general liking for animal behaviour during my college days as a bachelor’s student. During my master’s studies at the University of Calcutta, my mentor gifted me a book named ‘Survival Strategies’ by Raghavendra Gadagkar. This book changed my perspective about studying animal behaviour, especially social behaviour, and it deterred me from almost plunging into immunology. I became curious about the author and his works, and a few months down the line I ended up joining his lab as a Ph.D. student. 

IS: What is your favourite social insect and why?

AB: Well, although recently I have started working on ants, wasps were my first love. They are such a fascinating combination of beauty and danger (because their sting is excruciating!), and I find their social behaviour intriguing, especially that of the non-temperate primitively eusocial ones. Also, my Ph.D. thesis revolved around a primitively eusocial wasp (Ropalidia marginata), and maybe because of this, wasps will always have a soft spot in my heart. However, I am now venturing into the world of ants, and I am looking forward to investigating and learning many exciting and awe-inspiring things about them.

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

AB: My entire Ph.D. was quite eventful. However, by far, the best moment has been the time when I was running an experiment to understand the dynamics of gaining direct fitness through natural nest foundation by workers of the Ropalidia marginata. One beautiful day during my daily behavioural observations, I saw that some workers had aggregated outside the nest and involved in aggressive interactions, after which they returned to their nests and behaved “normally”. Soon, a few of the aggregating wasps left their nest and initiated a new nest together. That was a ‘eureka moment’ for me as before this we had no idea that worker wasps interact and plan to leave the nest way before they actually leave it. Moreover, now I can proudly say that such shrewd planning would put any politician to shame!

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

AB: During my Ph.D., I taught animal behaviour to undergraduate students, and I used love answering all the interesting queries they had about the ways of life in the animal kingdom. I also love to explain my research to my friends, acquaintances, school and college students, many of whom do not have the faintest idea about animal behaviour and evolutionary biology. I find it essential to use simple language without any technical jargon and provide analogies and relatable examples from day-to-day life to make research ideas more accessible.

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

AB: I think the current important questions in social insect research are related to understanding the evolution of eusociality. The transition from solitary ancestors to a social form and the successful maintenance of this derived social form still has many mysteries that are yet to be unfolded. For this, we need to have a holistic approach, and I think that it can be achieved by combining carefully-designed behavioural experiments with molecular tools and computational techniques.

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

AB: I think one of the biggest debates in social insect research is still the one started by Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita, and E.O. Wilson with their paper on the evolution of eusociality (Nowak, M.A, Tarnita, C.E and Wilson E.O. 2010. The evolution of eusociality. Nature. 466 pp 1057-106). The authors of this particular paper claimed that the haplodiploidy hypothesis (which has been the basis for sociobiology research for decades) has failed and that the focus has been given to the relatedness (r) part of the r>b/c inequality compared to the benefit and cost parts. They go on to claim that the kin selection theory is not a general one, doesn’t provide much biological insight, and that standard and much simpler natural selection models are adequate to explain altruistic behaviour. Following the publication of this article, there have been vigorous debates among the social insect researchers on the question of the importance and necessity of W.D. Hamilton’s theory of inclusive fitness. As a matter of fact, there has been a series of interesting commentaries (links to these commentaries are provided at the end of this post) on this issue portraying that Nowak et al.has indeed provoked social insect researchers everywhere.

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

AB: I recently finished reading ‘Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome’ by the Nobel Laureate, Venki Ramakrishnan. This book is a memoir of his research life and his contribution to unravelling the structure of the ribosome, and he describes what does it mean to “do scientific research”. I found this book fascinating as it takes you through the journey of a researcher’s life, which is no less than a roller-coaster ride. The book describes the frustrations and struggles in the life of a researcher as well as the little joys and the rare ‘eureka moments’ that motivate a researcher to strive on and dig deeper to try and understand a phenomenon. Moreover, his informal and witty writing style is something that makes this book relatable. I would strongly recommend that everyone read this book and take a moment to ponder the nature of science and scientific research.

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

AB: I love to read all kinds of fiction and non-fiction books, and my idea of a perfect lazy day is a book and a hot cup to tea. Another passion of mine is music. I have been trained in Hindustani classical music since childhood, and I love listening to a wide variety of music and sing whenever I find the time. 

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

AB: When things get tough (which is quite a common scenario in research life), I think about the little moments of joy and laughter, a few incidents that motivates me not to give up, and try to calm down and focus. Also, if these do not work out, then I have always found that speaking my heart out to a friend and/or a mentor helps me to a great extent! 

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

AB: 1) Drinking water, 2) a tent, and 3) books (lots and lots!). Drinking water because I would not survive without that, tent for shelter, and books because there cannot be a better way to spend time when one gets to stay away from civilisation.

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

AB: This person is undoubtedly my Ph.D. supervisor, Prof Raghavendra Gadagkar. He has been an inspiration throughout, and I could not have asked for a better mentor. Not only did I learn the basics and ethics of scientific research from him but also that research is not about costly equipment, but the logic behind framing a question and the elegant and detailed design of an experiment.

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

AB: Social insects are elegant and unusual. Some of them may not look “cute” in the first instance but believe me, once you start knowing them, they will reveal a whole new world of intelligence in front of you and will amaze you every step of the way. Working with social insects requires much patience, but at the end of the day when you observe them or even maintain them and care for them, it gives you an immense sense of satisfaction.

Links to the Commentaries

Sociobiology in turmoil again

Inclusive fitness theory and eusociality

Kin selection and eusociality

Only full-sibling families evolved eusociality

Inclusive fitness in evolution

In defense of inclusive fitness theory

Nowak et al. reply