Interview with a social insect scientist: Julia Eloff

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

JE: I am Julia Eloff, and I currently live in Wellington, New Zealand. I have most recently studied the population genetic structure of the invasive German wasp in South Africa. I am very passionate about the natural world and like to take part in other studies involving insects. I love fieldwork and collecting insects, as well as the lab work and molecular sides of studies.

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Nature walking in Whangerei, New Zealand. At Whangerei falls.

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

JE: I’ve always had a passion for social insects, in particular, ants. When I was younger, I always believed that they were most like humans. They can solve complex problems, are highly plastic, have a distinct hierarchy, and even build intricate and complex structures. As I got older and continued to study biology, one of my undergraduate courses required a self-directed project in which, not surprisingly, I did a project on ants and their cognitive abilities. I then came into contact with Antoine, the ‘ant guy’, who was at the time doing his Ph.D. He introduced me to his supervisor Prof. Phil Lester, who asked me whether I would be interested in working on wasps. I started to do a lot of background research to find out a bit more about them and even drawing them to learn how to identify them a bit better. One thing led to another, and here I am, researching wasps.

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

JE: I think I may have hinted at earlier, but definitely ants! In particular, Solenopsis invicta or the fire ant. I have always been intrigued by their cognitive ability as a group in which they can problem solve as a collective. This is seen in floods, where they group together, creating makeshift rafts that float on floodwaters and house all members of the colony, including the workers, queens, larvae, and eggs. Although many are scared or afraid of fire ants, I tend to appreciate their collective problem-solving abilities.

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

JE: The best moment of my research would have to be the moment my lab group and I were travelling back from a conference in the South Island, New Zealand. During this time, we were stopping regularly, hunting for wasp samples that we could catch and use for research. This collecting involved lots of running around with pottles and nets, and in some cases jumping into bushes. The people who saw us awkwardly catching wasps in random areas and giving us confused and awkward glances – I can only imagine what they were thinking at the time. The amusement from the situation and confused bystanders has definitely made its way into my memory books.

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

JE: I have been a teaching assistant for several undergraduate courses at Victoria University of Wellington. The two main courses I have taught have been genetics and animal diversity, which are both excellent platforms for sharing what I do. I have also been involved in many outreach events, including judging school science competitions or university open days. I like to encourage young minds to find a passion for science and hopefully find a field in which they are truly passionate about. I won’t lie though, I may have a slight bit of favouritism when people show a passion toward the entomological sciences.

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

JE: I think cognition in insects has been an ongoing area of importance in social insect research. There have been multiple studies looking at the brain of social insects (social brain hypothesis) and others that look at visual cognition as well as other forms of learning behaviour. In particular, in invasive social insects, increased cognitive plasticity could lead them to learn in a new environment quicker and consequently adapt to their new surroundings. Therefore, I think more research in the cognition of invasive social insects and their ability to problem solve as a collective should be undertaken. This has always been an area of social insect research that I have been quite passionate about!

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

JE: I definitely think one of the biggest questions generating debate is whether we should make use of CRISPR-Cas9 gene drives in the management of pest insects. Not only is it a controversial topic where the release of genetically modified organisms concerns the public, but there are some ecological concerns as well. One of the more commonly bought up ecological risks would be the question as to whether we would be able to contain them to prevent their spread outside of the targeted areas. Another question would be whether genetic mutations could result in a rapid removal of the gene drive. Although gene drives can be highly useful as pest management tools in some situations, they may not be as effective in others. With the correct background research and careful consideration of hazards involved, the implementation of gene drives may be a useful tool in the removal of invasive social insects.

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

JE: The last book I read was ‘All Creatures, Great and Small’ by James Herriot. I absolutely loved the book and reading about all his funny tales as a veterinarian and the heart-warming moments. It’s definitely a book I would recommend, especially to all my fellow animal lovers. It’s a book based on true-life stories filled with humour and compassion and multiple animal tales.

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

JE: I’ve always been a nature walk enthusiast. I love to experience nature and to look at the plants and creatures. I also love to draw and paint. From portraits of people to drawing my favourite insect creatures, it’s a passion I’ve had since childhood. More recently, I’ve been trying to get in touch with my sporty side and taking part in some martial arts classes.

Some of Julia’s insect sketches and drawings. @artyjewlz

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

JE: One thing that definitely helps when things get tough is taking advantage of my creative outlet. I like to pick up a pencil and put my emotions on paper. Sometimes just remembering those little moments that made me smile in the day helps too.

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

JE: First, my sketching gear to get me through those tough moments, and document all the nature I see. Secondly, some seedlings to garden for entertainment and maybe food. Lastly, my guitar, music definitely can calm the soul.

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

JE: I mentioned Antoine Felden before, but he has definitely been there for me. Without him, I would not have been where I am now. He was there for me during the roughest of times and let me feed his ants. He excited my science career with his passion and helped me stay in social insect research. Secondly, Mariana Bulgarella, she taught me everything I know, from lab work to analyses. She is one of the most amazing teachers I have ever had who kept my passion for science alive.

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

JE: Keep talking to people about your passions; you never know when you may speak with the right person (like ‘Antoine the ant guy’), who will introduce you to the right people to start your science career.

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

JE: Recently, I took part in a moth survey at Zealandia Ecosanctuary, New Zealand. This survey took place at night. Between the combination of the night sky and the sanctuary, there were thousands of glow worms surrounding us. It made me feel like I was in a scene from Avatar. Not only that, but seeing kiwi in the wild, as well native gecko species and tuatara. It was definitely the right place at the right time.

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