Interview with a social insect scientist: Giselle Martins Lourenço

IS: Who are you and what do you do?

GL: My name is Giselle M Lourenço, and I recently finished my Ph.D. in Ecology at the University of Campinas (Brazil). Currently, I am a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Ecological Synthesis and Conservation at the University of Minas Gerais (Brazil). My research aims to understand the distribution and movement of insects in space and time and how environmental filters and climate change influence them. During my master’s degree in ecology at the University of Ouro Preto (Brazil), I studied the distribution of herbivorous insects and ants in the canopy. It was at this moment that the opportunity arose to develop, with my dear friend Fabíola Keesen (Ph.D. student at the University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), an experiment to evaluate the recruitment of the ant Dorymyrmex thoracicus and a computer model for the trail formation. We reported this study in a recent paper at Insectes SociauxRecruitment and entropy decrease during trail formation by foraging ants (Lourenço GM, Keesen F, Fagundes R, Luna P, Silva AC, Ribeiro SP, Arashiro E, 2019).

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Me and my friend Fabiola Keesen conducting an experiment with the ant species Dorymyrmex thoracicus (Dolichoderinae) (Brazilian Atlantic Forest). Image: Reisla Oliveira

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

GL: I developed an interest in ecology and insects during my undergraduate degree, but I started studying ants during my master’s. My friend Fabíola Keesen studied biological modeling, so we decided to integrate our knowledge to work together. The idea of our recent paper at Insectes Sociaux was to integrate our field experiments with computer modeling, which allowed us to extrapolate and understand ant foraging. Further, we invited our advisors (Dr. Sérvio P Ribeiro and Dr. Everaldo Arashiro, respectively) and other expert collaborators on these studies (Roberth Fagundes, Pedro Luna and Alcides C Silva). It was very productive to work in an interdisciplinary way, allowing new experiences for all co-authors.

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Ant species Dorymyrmex thoracicus Gallardo (1916) as a study organism for investigating the recruitment and entropy decrease during trail formation (our recent paper at Insectes Sociaux). Image: Reisla Oliveira

IS: What is your favorite social insect and why?

GL: Ants are my favorite social insect. It is incredible that they can organize themselves to perform different activities throughout the day, balancing the costs and benefits for the entire colony with each decision.

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

GL: My Ph.D. defense! It was a fantastic moment, a closure of four years very well lived! Among all the challenges I experienced during the doctorate, I had the opportunity to learn a lot, make great friends, and visit amazing places. Finishing this step was hard because I did not want it to end! However, it was great to share this achievement with friends and my lovely family!

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

GL: Whenever I talk about insects and their behavior, especially ants, I try to show how small organisms can be very organized and ready to act in different situations. The examples associated with foraging, colony defense, and recruitment strategies arouse curiosities in everyone, from biology students to non-specialists in the field. I try to participate in events for the general public, bringing curiosities about insects and their role in our daily lives.

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

GL: I would think that it is important to connect field experiments with computer modeling. These methods can help to demonstrate that the organization of complex systems is also a quality of ant colonies. Employing this complex systems approach, we can explain collective behavior that cannot be detected by studying individual and isolated ants.

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

GL: Questions related to the effect of climate change on social insect behavior. Also, the discussion about the threat to insect ecosystem services due to intensive pesticide use has been growing and drawing the attention of the general population.

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

GL: Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. I got this book from some friends after my doctorate defense and was a very special read for the moment I am currently living. Hope narrates her story from the beginning of her career and talks a lot about the challenges of young PhDs who seek the dream of growing up and establishing themselves as a teacher and researcher. I highly recommend it, especially for young women scientists!

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

GL: I like to dance the samba, travel, be with my family, and practice yoga.

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

GL: First, I need to take a deep breath. I like to relax, practicing yoga, sleeping, and meeting my friends and family. The next day I wake up and remember that I am here doing what I like best, and even though I have hard days, I do not want to change course!

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

GL: Wow, a very difficult question. As I can only choose three things: 1) drinking water because without it, nothing would be possible; 2) pocketknife to open seeds, fruits, and whatever else is needed; 3) tent to be safe and to sleep peacefully. If one more item was allowed: lighter to ensure I can have a bonfire! And I hope this island has a lot of food!

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

GL: My doctoral advisor Dr. Sérvio P Ribeiro. He aroused my passion for interaction studies among species and their environments, in search of patterns and their possible explanations. I also have to mention my doctoral co-advisor, Dr. André VL Freitas. He inspired me to dive into butterfly studies, even long before I met him in person. 

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Me and my advisors Dr. Sérvio P Ribeiro and Dr. André VL Freitas after my Ph.D. defense (30 November 2018, Unicamp, Brazil)

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

GL: Be aware of the details; field observations are essential for interpreting and discussing the results found! Keep your field notebook well-guarded; it is always useful even after many years.

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

GL: Mexico! During my doctorate, I had the opportunity to spend six months at the Instituto de Ecología – INECOL, working together with Dr. Wesley Dáttilo and his students. For this, I had the support of the University of Campinas and a financing agency in Brazil (Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior – CAPES, Finance Code 001). It was an unforgettable professional and personal experience. Lots of studying, dedication, and tacos!

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