Interview with a social insect scientist: Katja Kwaku

You can read Katja’s recent research article about leaf transfer behaviour in Atta cephalotes here.

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

My name is Katja Kwaku and I am a Master’s student in the Biology department of Tufts University. I’m an ecologist; I’ve worked on a variety of projects, but I’m generally interested in behavioral ecology and global change biology.

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

I’ve been fascinated by animals and their behavior since I was little, but I only really became interested in social insects and leafcutter ants in particular in 2019 when I worked as an educator at the Montshire Museum of Science in Vermont. The Montshire has a colony of honey bees and a colony of leafcutter ants. The leafcutter ants constituted one of the museum’s most popular exhibits and visitors of all ages always asked great questions. Sometimes, I didn’t know the answer to a question, and moments like these inspired me to delve into the primary literature and start researching leafcutter ants.

Social insect researcher Katja Kwaku.

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

Clearly, I am biased, but I have to go with leafcutter ants. There are so many strong interspecific interactions at play! Leafcutter ants have a mutualistic symbiotic relationship with the fungus they cultivate in their underground nests, they rely on bacteria in many ways to mediate this ant-fungus interaction, and they are voracious herbivores of many tree species. Also, they’re just so adorable when they’re carrying leaf fragments.

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

I’m relatively new to research, but I would say the best moment so far was witnessing leafcutter ants transfer leaf fragments to one another for the first time. My classmates and I had spent several months reading articles about leaf transfer and had finally travelled from Boston to Costa Rica to do a project about it, so it was such a relief seeing leaf transfer with my own eyes and knowing that the entire basis of our project wouldn’t fall through. It was also really exciting to see leafcutter ants transfer fragments directly to one another on tree trunks because leaf transfer in that context, to my knowledge, has not been explicitly documented before.

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

Yes! I am currently a teaching assistant and have served as an educator at various science museums in the past. I love highlighting the connections between my research and the material I’m teaching, even if they’re not directly related, because it shows how everything in science is connected and relays why I’m excited to teach the material and why I think it’s important.

Leafcutter ants on their foraging trail. Photo: Katja Kwaku

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

Some important research questions involve understanding how insects use specific cues to drive foraging decisions and communication. Understanding the mechanisms behind fundamental behaviors will give insight into how to best conserve insect species and associated ecosystem services such as pollination and decomposition.

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

One topic of debate relevant to social insect research is whether or not global insect decline or the “insect apocalypse” is actually happening. There is evidence of insect population declines in many areas, but there are so few insect monitoring programs around the world that we run into the issue of having insufficient data to make a generalized conclusive statement about it.

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

The last book I read was Silent Sparks: The Wonderous World of Fireflies by Tufts professor Sara Lewis. I would recommend it because it’s scientific in content but written like a novel, so it’s an interesting and easy read!

Katja Kwaku and her co-author Elena Gonick observing leafcutter ants in Costa Rica.

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

I love dancing and doing yoga. I also enjoy making videos with my family and friends.

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

Things often don’t go as planned in ecology, so I like to laugh about all the unexpected field work mishaps; they make great stories for later. I also like to reach out to and talk with friends and get exercise when things get tough.

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

I’m the cautious type, so my immediate instinct would be to bring first aid supplies! Otherwise, I would bring a hammock to relax in, binoculars to better enjoy the landscape and wildlife, and a notebook to document my experiences.

Leafcutter ant on an artificial foraging trail. Photo: Katja Kwaku

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

Dr. Colin Orians has been an excellent mentor and professor during my time as a Master’s student. He was always happy to spend lots of time with me discussing science, but ultimately encouraged me to make my own research decisions and let me think for myself.

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

Be patient, since insects don’t always cooperate with experiments right away. Also, if possible, try to send time outdoors observing wildlife outside of dedicated research hours. Your observations will remind you of insects’ magnificence and might inspire your next research question!

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

This is such a hard question since every place is different and has its own positives. One of my favorite places is Long Point, Ontario, where I helped study the endangered Fowler’s toad population. The auditory experience of several frog species chorusing in addition to the sounds of birds and insects at night was enchanting.

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