Interview with a social insect scientist: Edith Invernizzi

IS

IS: Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Edith Invernizzi, and I am a Ph.D. student in the School of Biology at the University of St Andrews (Scotland), studying collective behaviour and self-organisation. I am a theoretical modeller, mainly, but I believe that all models should be built in a constant feedback loop with real data. I try to integrate laboratory and field experiments in my work as much as possible.

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

Since I started working on models for an undergraduate project, I have been interested in the evolutionary dynamics of behaviour. It’s this that ultimately led me to collective behaviour and ants in my Ph.D.

IS: What is your favorite social insect and why?

Ants, because of the immense ecological range this genus has been able to colonise. They are a perfect case study for different species that can independently evolve similar collective behaviour mechanisms when the environmental context is different.

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

I’m very early on in my research, so I have a limited range of experiences to draw from. But I do know what the best moment has been. When I started looking at social insect collective nest building, I came to the hypothesis that self-organised activity could be seen as continuous assessment of the environment, a homeostatic mechanism in response to constant fluctuations. I then discovered the body of literature that proposes precisely that frame of interpretation. I felt that I was learning how to understand behavioural data and, most of all, that my way of understanding was meaningful to other scientists.

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

I personally do not do much outreach, but I try focusing on how social insects make collective decisions whenever asked about my research by a non-scientist. I think decision making is a fascinating behaviour that every human can relate to, but that is often considered only from an individual perspective. I try to use this example to give a different point of view.

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

The importance of individual-level variation when we think of colonies and eusocial species. There are suggestions that behavioural variation within a colony causes different individuals to exploit different resources. Similarly, in behaviours such as collective building, workers with varying levels of susceptibility to different cues might initiate changes in the structure that are important for short-term adaptation. I suspect that understanding the role of within-group variation is not only crucial for helping disentangle environmental adaptation but also has potential applications in fields such as robotics and engineering – for instance, in Ant Colony Optimisation (ACO) algorithms.

From a ‘genetics versus plasticity’ perspective, it is interesting to study how much of this variation derives from allelic genetic differences, in poly-mated queen or multiple-queen colonies, and how much from epigenetic factors. For intra-colony competition, the question becomes evolutionary: is there an ‘optimal’ level of inter-individual variation that maximises colony fitness? How might mating systems, genetic and epigenetic mechanisms have evolved under selection to reach and maintain such level?

To start scratching the surface of these questions, we need more tools that facilitate individual identification and individual behaviour records. Developing more advanced movement and ethological tracking methods (the latter automatically tracking behavioural events in a video recording), for example, is essential if we want to obtain a large amount of data with reliable sample sizes and make this fine level of individual detail in group behaviour studies the norm. More behavioural studies done in the field are also necessary to match the observed variation to the multiple factors that it might respond to, in a complex environmental context.

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

Probably the questions about cognition. How advanced are insect cognitive capacities? Are we underestimating them or overestimating them? What is the relationship between individual cognition and collective cognition at eusocial colony-level?

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

A Time for Everything, by K.O. Knausgaard. If you are into rational psychological analysis and minute behavioural details but still like to find an overarching narrative when you look at life experiences, then Knausgaard is the author for you.

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

I practice martial arts, read contemporary literature, and enjoy planning exciting activities. I prefer a good stand-up comedy show, live or on TV, over a holiday trip anytime.

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

When nothing seems to work, I remind myself that science and my Ph.D. are only one aspect of my life, and I try to put more energy into others. If I meet a wall in my research, then I create something else or break down a barrier elsewhere. Working on other projects just remind me that I can produce an output I am enthusiastic about and renew my creativity.

In tough times, it is focusing on what I find exciting about the work, the goal, or the challenge that keeps me going. But I must schedule some fun activities throughout the week that break the tension and give me fresh energy; a good climb or stand-up comedy always do the job.

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

A Swiss knife, a water flask, and a diary with a pen attached to it. The first two for surviving and the third one to keep my sanity. I enjoy spending time alone, and if I have the time, I might as well keep track of my thoughts.

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

Definitely my undergraduate supervisor and master’s co-supervisor, R.T. Gilman. He has given me a passion for dissecting dynamics, and he is the one who introduced me to modelling.

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

Be patient. Be passionate. And always work with a behavioural scientist if you are a theoretician. They bring you down from your matrices into the real world.

IS: What is your favorite place science has taken you?

I did my Master of Philosophy fieldwork in the area around Lugu Lake, in South Western China. It is close to the most beautiful place I have ever been to, and I hope that its landscape and culture have remained unspoiled.

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