Interview with a social insect scientist: Robert J. Warren II


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

RW: My interest is in the impact of global change (species invasion, climate change, and habitat fragmentation) on species interactions, which quite often steers me toward social insects.

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

RW: Really, at its core, my interest in research stems from walks in the woods. My favorite research projects tackle natural history observations with ecological theory.

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

RW: The Aphaenogaster rudis complex (woodland ants in eastern U.S. deciduous forests) certainly are my favorite social insects because I spent much of my life hiking and playing in woodlands, and I never knew that a single species was so dominant (both in abundance and impact). Now, I see them everywhere.

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

RW: I spent my doctoral research trying to explain the contrasting distribution of two myrmecochorous plants in the Southeastern U.S. based on the niche requirements of the plants. One day, when loading equipment into the back of my truck, I thought, ‘what if it is the ants?’ My research had solely focused on plants up until that time, and incorporating ants opened up a whole new world for me (including new insights into global change ecology).

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

RW: I teach ecology and biostatistics in a biology department (SUNY Buffalo State). I share my research and field experience with students – most of whom want to go into the medical field and do not think ecology is relevant to their careers – to connect with the students and help them see a different aspect of biology.

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

RW: I am fascinated with how often social insects get cheated. We know of many great benefits that come with sociality/eusociality, but one of the main benefits seems to be that a colony can amortize the cost of being cheated across many individuals and hence tolerate it more easily than a solitary organism.

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

RW: In my little area, ant-mediated seed dispersal has long been described as a mutualism despite little evidence supporting palpable benefits for the ants. I have received surprisingly strong and emotional negative responses, particularly from plant-oriented folks, when questioning it as a mutualism.

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

RW: Last Train to Memphis, by Peter Guralnick. I would recommend it. Guralnick does an amazing job detailing the rise of Elvis Presley, including showing that Presley had a deep understanding and passionate love for black music, and you realize that a lot of the resistance to Presley in his early years was racist resistance to his integrating black musical styles into what became rock and roll.

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

RW: I love hiking and all that stuff, and I spend a lot of time doing home improvement on our 19th Century Victorian home. I also love watching Indiana University basketball and University of Georgia football.

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

RW: I have made a few great decisions in my life, and my wife of 27 years is one. She is my foundation.

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

RW: These days that question is a little open given that we can bring a Kindle and mp3 player with thousands of options, but I will try and answer in the traditional sense. I would bring Alice in Chains “Grind” because I can listen to it again and again, Hermann Hesse “Siddhartha” because I seem to find something new every time I read it, and a large supply of Tabasco sauce because I like it on my seafood.

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

RW: Retired University of Georgia Professor Ron Pulliam. I entered his lab as a former newspaper journalist and left a scientist.

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

RW: Work with people that you like and find projects for which you have passion because it is a helluva lot of work to do for low pay and little reinforcement.

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

RW: As a literal ‘place,’ I love doing work in the Southern Appalachian Mountains where, even though there are thorns, wasps, and steep slopes, I can work in shorts and a t-shirt and get lost in the green. As a figurative ‘place,’ I love working with students and scientists, which is endlessly fascinating and rewarding.

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