Interview with a social insect scientist: Tim DeLory


IS:Who are you, and what do you do?

TD: My name is Tim DeLory. I am currently a Ph.D. student at Utah State University in Dr. Karen Kapheim’s lab, where we study the evolution of sociality in bees. The objective of my dissertation is to study genome evolution in bees across a range of bee social life histories using a bioinformatic approach. I am particularly interested in the potential impact that these complex social phenotypes can have on the evolution of genomes.

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

TD: I first learned about social insects in my undergraduate entomology class. My professor, Kevin Alexander, explained the haplodiploid mating system of hymenopterans to us and showed us some of the different species of bees with variable sociality. This piqued my interest in social insects. The following summer, I had the opportunity to attend a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at UNC Greensboro under the guidance of Olav Rueppell, where we studied recombination rates in honeybees. It was after this REU that I knew I wanted to make studying social insects my career path and use bioinformatics approaches to do this.

IS:What is your favorite social insect, and why?

TD: I would have to say Meliponini. Maybe it’s cheating to say a whole tribe is my favorite, but it’s their diversity of behavior and life histories that fascinates me. They have a wide variety of castes and nesting strategies. I have also always loved reading about interspecific interactions between eusocial species, and the ​Lestrimelitta limaois a fascinating example of this. They have a “robber” caste instead of a foraging caste which robs the reserves of other stingless beehives. The pollen-collecting morphology of ​Lestrimelitta is reduced and vestigial. It is interesting to me that the forager caste is not inextricably linked to pollen-collecting in bees. On a personal note, I think they are beautiful (especially ​Tetragonisca angustula) and have an incredible variety of kinds of honey.

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

TD: I would say the most memorable moment in my research was when I was able to see the results of a simulation that I made when finishing a fire ecology project I had been working on before starting my Ph.D. It relied on some field data we had collected as well as GIS data that other students had gathered. The results were interesting, but the moment was memorable because I liked the collaborative effort that went into it. I was able to really integrate my math background, as well. It gave me a strong sense of affirmation that research in the life sciences was the right career path for me.

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

TD: I am a teaching assistant for some introductory biology labs at my university. I try to discuss my research whenever appropriate in these classes to demonstrate that people do apply the skills they are learning. When teaching, I also try to expose my students to other career opportunities beyond academia or medical school, such as land management agencies or non-profit work. I have some friends in these areas that I can refer them to if they have questions. I think this helps students feel less siloed by a biology degree, which hopefully translates to retention. As far as conversations with the community at large, I really consider it a victory when I can explain that there is a lot of research beyond honeybee health going on in entomology, and why basic scientific research, in general, is valuable.

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

TD: I am relatively new to research in social insects and research in general. But I would say some of the recurrent issues I have noticed have to do with the rate of advancement of sequenced genomes, while the characterization of insect life histories has not advanced nearly as rapidly in recent years. In 06’, the honeybee genome was assembled, and there was a lot of information about its social life history to contextualize that genome. We are now in a position where we can afford to sequence bees whose more basic qualities are still a mystery. It will be interesting to see how new assessments of bee life histories can help to direct sequencing efforts. Or perhaps as sequencing becomes more and more affordable, we will sequence results to direct which bees we select to do behavioral studies in the field.

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

TD: I know that the value of kin selection theory as a framework for understanding social evolution has been repeatedly brought into question over the years, and has sparked many debates. Although I am not sure if this issue is as contentious today. One recent question that seems to generate a lot of discussion and differing opinions is the role of using insects with semi-social or facultatively eusocial lifestyles to understand eusocial evolution as a whole. I think the research community has not yet reached a consensus on what we can reasonably infer about the evolution of extant eusocial lineages using less socially complex insects as ancestral proxies.

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

TD: The last book that I read was called The Dragon Reborn. It was a fun read for me. I would recommend it if you really like reading Tolkein-like fantasy books with expansive world building and have read the first two books of the Wheel of Time series. I would not recommend it if you are interested in a book with deep or dynamic characters. The plot moves pretty slowly as well because it is part of a much larger series.

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

TD: I like different outdoor activities such as hiking, rock-climbing, and skiing. I also enjoy jiu-jitsu.

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

TD: Mostly, I just think about what got me interested in social insects in the first place. The idea of these various insect societies interacting and inhabiting the planet and acting out these amazing and intricate narratives reminds me of a science fiction novel. It’s endlessly fascinating. It’s easier to push through when I can remind myself that my job is to research something that is fundamentally cool.

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

TD: I would bring seeds. I used to have a large vegetable plot when I was younger, and I loved tending to it. So, I think gardening would be fun, and an excellent way to have a steady source of food. I would bring my collection of books. I think I could read Frank Herbert’s Dune once a year and not get sick of it. Lastly, I would bring a volleyball, because it is always good to have a friend.

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

TD: I had a fantastic group of professors during my undergrad at Western Colorado University (WCU) who all encouraged me to do research and taught me valuable skills to do my research. My research advisor at WCU, Dr. Jonathan Coop, really comes to mind. He gave me a lot of creative control over designing a simulation for a project of his that I was working on. I felt like a colleague that was making a real contribution. Beyond that, he has always respected my personal decisions, including leaving school to work when I needed a break.

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

TD: I would say that reading a healthy amount of papers is helpful for this in the beginning. The literature will give you a sense of what intrigues you about social insects. You can check out the lab sites of the authors of the papers that you especially liked, and contact those authors. That is how I met my Ph.D. advisor. It has been my experience that everyone I have contacted in the social insect community is affable. They will recommend other labs, too, if they think those labs could be a good fit for you.

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

TD: I had the opportunity to go to an old wildfire site from the 2002 Rodeo-Chedeski burn in Arizona to collect data for a fire ecology research project. I was on top of a mesa looking around, and it really made me realize how expansive the burn was. That vista definitely made a strong emotional impression. I could also see how the landscape had such a dynamic recovery response from one drainage to the next during the time I spent there.