Interview with a social insect scientist: Claire Morandin


IS: Who are you and what do you do?

CM: My name is Claire Morandin, and I am a postdoctoral researcher on an EMBO fellowship at the University of Lausanne, but currently on maternity leave – my second daughter was born in July. When I am not taking care of her, I am mainly spending my time conducting research that focuses on social insect genomics. In general, I am interested in understanding how complex phenotypic traits arise and evolve across species. And more specifically, I study the evolution and maintenance of the female castes in ants. Recently I started working on honey bees, too, trying to answer similar questions in the evolution of female castes. I got hooked on bioinformatics during the work for my Ph.D. thesis, and I use genomics tools such as RNA sequencing, comparative genomics, evolutionary analysis, gene co-expression networks, and methylation to understand these complex mechanisms.

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

CM: After finishing my bachelor’s degree, I took a year off and volunteered with the CNRS to work in Zimbabwe, basically being a field assistant helping scientists with their experiments. Having had this experience, I discovered my passion for research and decided that I also wanted to conduct my own research experiments and become a scientist myself. This decision led me to continue with a master’s at Uppsala University in Sweden and a Ph.D. degree at the University of Helsinki in Finland. It took me a few more years of studying and meeting the right mentors to discover the exciting world of social insect research.

IS: What is your favorite social insect and why?

CM: Before last year I would have definitely answered ants, probably Formica ants. However, honey bees are cool too and way easier to study. They can develop from eggs to adults in the lab, and I am fully taking advantage of this feature at the moment. So, I would go for honey bees being my favorite social insects now. Also, as a side product of keeping bees, you get plenty of honey!

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

CM: The best moment was my Ph.D. defence; it was challenging but also a lot of fun to wrap up four years of hard work and present what I had accomplished during these years. This process makes you realize all the smaller puzzle pieces coming together and revealing new bigger conclusions. I also had a great discussion with my opponent, Dr. Seirian Sumner. You do not know how enjoyable a defence is before you get the chance to have such a long and stimulating discussion with a great opponent. Also, having all my family and friends and people who encouraged me through the years together in one room to celebrate with me made this day so very special (and well, the party afterwards was pretty great too!).

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

CM: I sadly do not do much outreach, besides communicating my own and research I find generally interesting and exciting over social media. However, I occasionally teach bioinformatics and try to spread my enthusiasm for this field to the students. I have also recently gained an interest in gender studies. With a colleague, Dr. Luke Hollman, we recently published a paper showing that researchers tend to collaborate with same-gendered colleagues leading to further discrepancies between genders in life science. I think this is an important and very relevant topic in science, although not related to my actual research. With such insight, we can raise awareness of the gender gap in research, which eventually may contribute to making this gap smaller and hopefully disappear in the decades to come.

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

CM: There is so much we still do not understand about social insects, and that makes my work very exciting. Despite plenty of social insect genomes out there, we are still trying to put pieces together to determine whether common mechanisms are behind caste differences across all social insects. More comparative genomics work will be essential to shed light on such important evolutionary questions.

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

CM: I would think that some of the biggest questions are the ones related to the origin and evolution of eusociality across the phylogeny tree. However, from my current work point of view, I would say that the role of methylation in caste differentiation also generates lots of debates that I like to fuel up with more data and findings from my work.

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

CM: I love running and baking, and recently took a significant interest in sewing – it helps me calm down when everything else around me spins so fast.

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

CM: When things get tough, I like to go outside for long walks or runs with very loud music to forget about everything. And then I come home to two happy daughters who only want to play and laugh, and I quickly forget about the tough things because making them happy is what matters most. Having a life outside of science – a place to go when things get tough – helps me go through the stress and the hardship of a scientist’s life.

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

CM: A machete, a water bottle and a book (would finally have time to read a grown-up book, and not just children’s books).

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

CM: My collaborator and mentor Sasha (Dr. Mikheyev) has had the most considerable influence on my science career. He made me go from qPCR to RNAseq, and I never looked back. Because of him, I got hooked on bioinformatics.

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

CM: Be patient – very patient – and do not forget that science is fantastic but that it is not everything in life, so when it gets tough, you always need something else that can make you happy. That was more general advice for being a scientist, I guess. For social insects, there is not much to say. They are fantastic, go for it!

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

CM: Japan, I have had the chance to visit Sasha’s lab at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) eight times already, and I love going back there every year. Okinawa is so beautiful!