Interview with a Social Insect Scientist: Sara Miller

You can read Sara’s recent research article about the ecogeographical patterns of body size variation in Polistes paper wasps here.

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

SM: My name is Sara Miller. I’m currently a postdoc at Cornell University in the Sheehan lab. My research focuses on why biological diversity evolves and in particular how interactions among animals can drive the evolution of diversity. I now work with Polistes paper wasps, but I did my PhD at the University of British Columbia working on threespine stickleback (a small species of fish).

Sara Miller catching threespine stickleback at North Lake in British Columbia

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

SM: I have always been interested in animals and I think that the question of why are there so many species of animal is one that drives many scientists. I love learning new tools and techniques which makes studying the evolution of diversity a great choice for me. This question can be investigated from many different angles and that has allowed me to work with everything from genomes to live organisms to specimens in museum collections. When I started my postdoc, I decided to switch from fish to social wasps because of how amazing social wasps are as a study system. The small genome size of social wasps and the fact that males are haploids make this a fantastic system for looking at the genetics of diversity. Social wasps are abundant and easy to find so while collecting wasps still requires a net, I no longer need a boat to do research. Social insects are also great because there are decades of amazing work on social behavior for these species but there are still many unanswered questions about diversification in social insects.

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

SM: My favorite social insects are, of course, paper wasps! I love the diversity in this group, particularly the color variation both within and among species. Of the 200 or so species of Polistes, my favorite is probably P. fuscatus. Female P. fuscatus have unique facial markings, and other females use these differences to recognize and remember other individuals, making this species (arguably) the “smartest” insect on the planet. My recent research suggests that this new cognitive ability has likely evolved extremely recently, making this species even more remarkable.

A female Polistes fuscatus on her nest. Note her distinctive facial markings!

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

SM: A large component of my PhD was a pretty high-risk project looking for parallel genetic differences between populations of stickleback fish that occurred with and without a predator species. Going in, I had no idea if I would find even a single genetic difference, and I worried that I had spent a lot of time and money on a project that wouldn’t have interesting or interpretable results. When I analyzed the data, to my surprise, I found differences in more than 600 genes – way more than I would have predicted. One of the best things about science is learning something new and being surprised by that answer.

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

SM: I’ve done social insect outreach as part of Insectapalooza, an annual event in which thousands of local residents come to Cornell to learn about the exciting world of insects. Along with the other members of the lab, I explained to visitors why wasps are so cool.  We set up a “meet a wasp” booth where visitors had the chance to touch a male wasp (males lack stingers) and this was a huge hit, especially with little kids. It was really rewarding to see people changing the way they thought about these often-misaligned species.  

Sara Miller talking about facial recognition at Insectapalooza

Otherwise, a lot of my outreach activities are focused on data digitization and increasing data accessibility. Digitizing and archiving data is important because it increases the diversity of users of that data, and provides baseline information for tracking how species respond to global change. In the context of natural history collections, digitizing specimens allows researchers, science educators, and people from all over the world to interact with the specimens in the collection. I’ve been working with the Cornell University Insect Collection (CUIC) and other natural history collections to photograph, barcode, and transcribe label information associated with specimens. Digitizing natural history collections is a gargantuan task and collections need all of the help they can get so I urge other social insect researchers to consider volunteering at their local natural history collection.

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

SM: The world is becoming increasingly difficult for all insects as these species face simultaneous challenges from changes in climate, land use, pesticides, and invasive species. I think that basic research on the ecology of social insects – how they interact with other social and non-social insect species, the impact of social insects on the ecological community, and what factors limit or promote the expansion of species ranges – will be important for understanding how environmental change will affect social insect species and will provide important information on how to mitigate these effects in the future.

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

SM: There are a lot of unanswered questions and interesting ongoing research about which genes or other genetic mechanisms are necessary for caste development, how conserved are these mechanisms across independent origins of sociality, and how did these mechanisms evolve.

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

SM: If I’m not reading for work, I mainly read fiction. The last books I read were, “Dark Matter” by Blake Crouch and “The Circle” by Dave Eggers. “Dark Matter” is a novel about alternative realities and the consequences of the choices we make, and “The Circle” reads like your crazy relative wrote a 400-page conspiracy theory about social media but also happened to be a pretty good writer. I’d recommend them both if you like fast-paced Sci-Fi.

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

SM: I’m an avid reader, and like to go hiking, or do yoga. I enjoy nature photography and working with social insects has been a great motivation to try to improve my macrophotography skills.

A female Polistes metricus wasp collected in 1896 from the region that would later become the state of Oklahoma.

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

SM: When field work gets tough, I always think of this anecdote by Jonathan Losos from his book, “Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree”. Early in his PhD, he spent days unable to do any research because a key on his computer needed to start his equipment stopped working in the rain. Finally, the sun came out, his key dried out, the experiment worked, and he eventually ended up a professor at Harvard University. Just because you encounter setbacks, doesn’t mean that you won’t eventually succeed. Keep going, be willing to be flexible, and try to learn from the experience so you can make completely different mistakes next time!

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

SM: I would bring equipment for staying connected to friends, family, and collaborators.

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

SM: I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of great mentors throughout my career but my PhD advisor, Dolph Schluter, has probably had the greatest influence. He is a meticulous thinker and taught me to consider both the “big picture” of how my research fits into the larger context of science, and to think about all possible explanations for my data.

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

SM: Doing science is much more frustrating and rewarding than learning about science in class. My advice for undergrads interested in a career in science is to get involved in research to see if it is right for you. Contact labs that do research that sounds interesting or look for Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) programs.

The Polistes collection at the American Museum of Natural History, New York

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

SM: I had the opportunity to visit the insect collections at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington D.C and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Combined, these collections have more than 20,000 Polistes specimens from an incredible number of species. It was really interesting both to see species from all over the world and to get a window into the past through these specimens. Some of the oldest Polistes specimens were collected in the 19th Century and it is remarkable to consider how much the world and science have changed since those specimens were collected.

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