Interview with a social insect scientist: Johanna Romero

You can read Johanna’s recent research article on crop-gizzard content and variations among Afrotropical Apicotermitinae here.

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

JR: I am a curious and enthusiastic learning person. I am finishing a Ph.D. in Belgium, studying the diversity and feeding-ecology of soil-feeding termites in Africa and South America. My current research includes several axes, such as the anatomy of the digestive tube, feeding niches, and phylogenetic relationships. I also have experience in other topics, but I love the fieldwork and the ecology of insects.

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

JR: I have always been passionate about social insects. When I was an undergraduate at biology and ecology school, entomology and insect ecology courses had a huge impact on me. For most of my self-directed projects, I tried to use ants as model species. I did a project about ants as bioindicators in fragmented tropical forests. For my master’s thesis, I studied the collective behavior of ants on nest digging. Then, for my Ph.D., I had the opportunity to continue studying social insects, so I started my research on soil-feeding termites. It was challenging because of my “ant background”, but I was able to dive into it. My current research model is Apicotermitinae, a highly diverse and successful subfamily, far from being well studied.

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

JR: In short, the carpenter ants, a special one that I observed in the Ecuadorian jungle. This species appears to be laughing when you observe it under a stereomicroscope. I also think of Pseudomyrmex triplarinus that lives in symbiosis with trees of the genus Triplaris. This ant protects the tree against predation by other insects and animals. This type of interaction is an interesting study subject.

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

JR: I think each project generates plenty of delightful memories. In my last project, my most interesting discovery was the great diversity of sclerotized structures in the foregut of Apicotermitinae termites. More specifically, the gizzard contained in some cases a predominant percentage of fine clay, among other minerals, but the function of these sclerotized structures remains unclear to this date.

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

JR: I was involved in practical work for undergraduate students. It is there where I incorporated the techniques I learned during my doctoral research. I also communicate my research to the public through scientific photography contests and research image expositions organized during the university open house.

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

JR: The notion of importance is quite relative. In general, the current most investigated questions in social insects are the caste differentiation and modes of reproduction. These have many adherents in the social insects’ domain. The approaches used in this research field have been evolving alongside the improvement of molecular techniques.

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

JR: Surely, the definition of limits between sociality and eusociality. Another great debate focuses on insect systematics and the use of different techniques in genomics and morphology.

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

JR: I usually read two books at the same time, just like the Netflix series for other people. The Last Kingdom is a historical fiction book set in England during medieval times. Real historical figures are depicted as brave Danish warriors trying to take over the English kingdoms. A single fictional protagonist, Uhtred, is introduced. He is English but grew up like a Danish.

Ecuadorian customs (Las costumbres de los ecuatorianos, original title) is a socio-historical book. It is a review of literature based on texts written by foreign naturalist explorers and their opinions of the native population during the colonial era. I would recommend both books if their themes interest the reader.

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

JR: I love outdoor walks, which sadly are not possible now (due to COVID-19 confinement measures). So, instead, I try to keep myself active by doing cardio training or yoga. However, my great hobbies are drawing, wood carving, and embroidery. As you can see (photos below), insects and nature are the focus of my pieces. I am not excellent, but it is what I love to do to relax.

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

JR: I try to keep my motivation as high as possible. I remember what my dreams are and how much I want to achieve them. If there is a conflict situation on a specific topic, I take a break and try to keep my distance with a short walk in full consciousness. Afterwards, I am ready to face it or ask for help, if necessary. Sometimes, to keep going, I think about how ant workers work hard over and over again. It may take time, but it is difficult for them to leave the trail of pheromones.

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

JR: My set of chisels, a camping pot, and my embroidery set. I can survive with that.

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

JR: The books of Marie Curie’s life and E.O Wilson’s research were my main influences to keep going in science. During my master’s thesis, Jean Louis Deneubourg taught me a passion for practicing science. His focus, motivation, and trust were very formative.

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

JR: In general, science is a long-term commitment. Insect social research is no different. So, you have to learn, postulate, test, enjoy, and keep doing.

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

JR: Science has brought me not only to places, but also new cultures. Among all the places I have been, my favorite is Africa. To do my Ph.D. fieldwork, I spent a few months in Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon. I really loved these countries. Sharing with people from villages or cities allowed me to understand more about what is essential in human beings. There are many contrasts, and yet people do not lose their joy. “Europeans have watches, but we have time.”

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