Interview with a social insect scientist: Diana Urcuqui Rojas

 IS: Who are you and what do you do?

I’m Diana Urcuqui Rojas, I completed my B. Sc in Biology at the Universidad del Valle (Colombia) last year. I love social insects! For my bachelor thesis, I studied the social structure and nest distribution of the ant Gnamptogenys bisulca in four different populations from natural montane forests in Colombia. For this study, I determined nest distribution and composition, and examined differences among castes in terms of morphology (mesosome) and reproductive systems. In this project I also studied the mites hold on the ants, so actually I’m studying mites found inside of G. bisulca nests. I’m also working in little projects and looking for an internship or enrolling in a masters program to continue in this field.


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

My love for social insects started with ants. When I was a biology student I helped another student in her bachelor’s thesis. She was working with nesting strategies of Ectatomma ruidum. That first exposure to ants motivated me to take an elective course named “social insects” with professor Patricia Chacón. This course was fascinating, was awesome to learn about complexes societies between little individuals. I learned about natural history, evolution, ecology, taxonomy and behaviour of ants, termites, bees and wasps. Also we learned some things about some communal insects.  After that, I realized that I wanted to carry on studying social insects.

La Celia- Colombia

La Celia – Colombia

IS: What is your favourite social insect and why?

Ants are my favourite, especially army ants, because of their moving colonies and aggressive behaviour. Also, I know the Eciton sp. colonies and I think that their soldiers are so pretty! Moreover, lately, I’m became interested in bees because of their social dynamics (species with individuals living alone and in colonies), which can allowed us to conduct studies that we can’t do with ants.

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

I love the study of natural history and I think that the best moment is when I started my bachelor’s thesis. From that moment I began to see with my own eyes all that I have read about ants, especially how organized a colony can be, how the workers keep the brood’s lives and the morphological differences among the castes. All this was really fascinating and exciting to me. Also, currently I’m really excited because my first publication (Social structure of Gnamptogenys bisulca (Formicidae: Ectatomminae) in tropical forests)!

(Top left) Workers of Gnamptogenys bisulca (Top right) G. bisulca workers with different mesosome. (Bottom) G. bisulca ergatoid with two ocelli

Gnamptogenys bisulca's nest

G. bisulca’s nest.

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

Up to now I have taught some things to my close relatives and friends and in one chance, with other biology students, we explained an insects collection to an audience in the library, we had different insects, including an Atta sp. colony. Normally, when I talk about this group, I try to explain some general aspect of their biology that is captivating and similar to humans. It’s awesome when you realized that we have some in commons, we are both social!

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

Regarding Gnamptogenys bisulca, I’m interested in the morphological differences between ergatoids: It would be great to compare what I found (see supplementary material in “Social structure of Gnamptogenys bisulca (Formicidae: Ectatomminae) in tropical forests”) with ergatoids morphology from colonies of other places. Behavioural studies would also be interesting, to analyse how the reproductive queens manipulate the others queens in a colony. Also, I would like to confirm the absence of polydomus in this species.  Concerning other groups, I would like to work with a species that have individuals living in solitary and in groups, and do comparative analyses using different tools (behavioural, natural history and molecular), this would be amazing, I could do it with  bees. I think that any study that make me understand the sociality in a species is interesting to me, I’m open to the possibilities.

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

Those questions related to the origin and evolution of the eusociality in different groups generate the biggest debate. Also, the supercolonies found in some ants open a discussion of what’s a true colony, and therefore, what is the right scale to study these species.  I hope as a result of new research in different species, we can answer these questions in a near future. Moreover, it’s also important to take into consideration the different tools that we have to study social insects, that are equally informative and have a similar likelihood of mistake. Sometimes we just focus in one and think that is the only way to understand something.

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

The last book was “the social conquest of earth”. I think it’s a good book, despite the polemic content, because it’s easily to understand for the general public and its very informative: Wilson explain the eusociality in our species and compares it with the eusociality of social insects.

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

I love spending time with my family, hiking, biking and dancing. I’m learning bellydance and also Indian dance. Moreover, actually I also want to learn somethings about astronomy.

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

I try to be positive all the time. Hard moments always happens to everybody and always you have the option to learn from them, and use them to your advantage for professional and personal growth.

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

Thinking just in surviving I would bring a penknife, a strong rope and a powerful lighter. For me these are the basic elements in a critical situation: with a penknife I can cut different kind of materials, and build others tools. A strong rope is useful to tie up something and keep it together, or drag it, also to build a refuge and to climb a slope. And a lighter to cook, keep warm, and to shoo wilds animals.

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

I have had incredible teachers but my love for social insects wouldn’t be possible without Patricia Chacón, Inge Armbrecht and James Montoya.

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

For me is important to be perseverant, disciplined and goal oriented. I also think that having a second choice is always a good idea.