Interview with a social insect scientist: Maddie Ostwald

You can read Maddie’s recent research article on temporal and spatial dynamics of carpenter bee sociality here.

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

MO: My name is Maddie Ostwald, and I’m a Ph.D. candidate in Animal Behavior at Arizona State University. I’m a student in Jennifer Fewell’s lab, which has a focus on coordination and emergence of cooperative behavior in social insect groups, particularly ants and bees. My research focuses on the costs and benefits of group living in a facultatively social carpenter bee, Xylocopa varipuncta. I’m also really interested in native bees as pollinators and how basic behavioral research can inform efforts to combat population declines.

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

MO: I first became interested in insect sociality when I was a high school student working at the Children’s Museum of Maine, where I taught science programs to kids. I was really excited about a program I got to teach using a honey bee observation hive, and I spent a lot of time watching these bees interact and reading about their behavior. This experience inspired me to study honey bee social behavior as an undergrad. Since then, I’ve developed an interest in the “weakly social” bees that can tell us a lot about how complex social groups like honey bee colonies evolved.

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

MO: I really love the carpenter bees that I work with. They are really large, buzzy, and charismatic. They bump into things a lot, which is their cutest feature.

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

MO: When trying to measure the resting metabolic rates of carpenter bees, I found that most bees weren’t willing to rest, and instead were always trying to chew their way out of their container. Their perseverance was frustrating at the time but led me to discover that if I gave them a piece of wood, they would perform nest excavation behavior in the lab! I was then able to measure the metabolic rate of excavating bees, which I never thought would be possible. This ability was really exciting because it meant that a hypothesis I had really wanted to test was suddenly and unexpectedly in reach.

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Breaking apart logs containing carpenter bee nests

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

MO: Most of the science outreach I do is with a non-profit organization called Sonoran Desert Native Bees, which I helped to found. Our mission is to engage our local community in efforts to support and learn about native bee populations. I also volunteer as a biology teacher for inmates at the state prison here. People in Arizona tend to be really afraid of bees because Africanized honey bees are common here, but they tend to appreciate them more when they learn about the ecological value of bees and the fact that the Sonoran Desert is one of the most bee-diverse regions in the world!

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

MO: To me, the most exciting questions in the field explore mechanisms for social evolution beyond kin selection, which has been the dominant paradigm for understanding these questions for many years. I think more research should examine systems that don’t fit neatly into this framework, like non-kin groups or groups where offspring are coerced into helping. These alternative drivers should give us a fuller picture of how and why social behavior evolved under different conditions.

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

MO: I think some of the most heated debates in the field surround the value and use of inclusive fitness theory. It’s surprising to me that this is still such a contentious issue, given the volume of work supporting this theory.

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

MO: I recently read Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Pérez, which I have been recommending to everyone I know. This book explores the “data gap” underlying pervasive discrimination against women: the ways in which the failure to collect data on female biology and experiences leads to products, medical treatments, workplaces, etc. designed for the default male. For example, I was surprised to learn that the vast majority of medical research is done on male subjects and male tissues. Fortunately, social insect researchers are used to studying female-dominated societies, so the data gap isn’t as big in our field!

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

MO: I really enjoy spending time outdoors, hiking, camping, kayaking, rock climbing, etc. Growing up in Maine, I had to restrict a lot of these activities to the few warm months of the year, and now that I live in Arizona, I can be outdoors anytime I want!

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

MO: I am lucky to have really supportive friends and family members. I especially appreciate talking and spending time with my friends who are not scientists, and therefore give me a more balanced perspective on my work and the things that I value outside of research.

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

MO: I would bring a fishing net so I could eat, a hammock to sleep on, and a friend so I wouldn’t be lonely.

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

MO: I was really strongly influenced by my undergraduate research advisor, Tom Seeley, who is a really kind, thoughtful person on top of being an excellent scientist. Tom is guided by his love for bees and his excitement for his research, and I learned from him that this approach often yields more important work than just chasing hot topics in the field.

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

MO: I would encourage anyone hoping to study social insects to embrace opportunities to work with understudied species. There are certainly challenges associated with this approach, but I think there’s a lot of value to asking questions across a range of systems and some really rewarding opportunities for discovery.

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

MO: I really loved the few months I spent on Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal before starting my Ph.D. Not only is BCI a really beautiful place with incredible wildlife, but it also has a great scientific community.

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