Interview with a Social Insect Scientist: Sruthi Unnikrishnan

You can read Sruthi’s recent research article about the dominance behaviour of primitively eusocial wasps here.

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

My name is Sruthi Unnikrishnan. I am pursuing my post-doctoral research in Dr. Axel Brockmann’s lab in National Centre for Biological Sciences, TIFR, Bangalore. I am currently studying the behavioural maturation in Asian honeybees.

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

I had always been interested in animals. But it was after reading Prof. Raghavendra Gadagkar’s book called  “Survival Strategies“ that I became fascinated with social biology and more specifically social insects.

Sruthi at her study site. Photo credit: Thresiamma Varghese

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

I would have to say the model system I worked with for my PhD, Ropalidia cyathiformis. Its a beautifuI, shy wasp, sensitive to human interference and I think a very underrated species, having fallen in the shadow of a more popular sister species, Ropalidia marginata. I believe that R. cyathiformis is a species with a lot of potential to ask many fascinating and wonderful questions. The difficulty to study this species has resulted in its poor understanding which is unfortunate.

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

Actually it was during the analysis of my results for the current paper in Insectes Sociaux. During my analysis it showed that the queen seems to be directing the majority of her aggression towards the PQ (Potential Queen), her immediate successor. This was very exciting to me, because this indicated a certain understanding and perhaps a certain intelligence in them. That they are able to recognise the next successor and target that individual. It was even more exciting because the PQ in turn was targeting the workers. This showed a clear difference in strategy between the queen and PQ and I found that very exciting, because here is a queen that isn’t blindly dominating all the individuals in the colony, but rather had “outsourced“ this job to the next successor. This was a great strategy and not something that we have commonly seen in other primitively eusocial insects. I know it‘s silly, but I felt a little pride for my wasps.

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

I don‘t teach regularly, but I have taught courses in the past as part of being a TA and will be teaching a course on animal behaviour in this semester as well. I usually incorporate my research to better explain how to design and conduct experiments, especially designing behavioural observation schedules without any biases. By providing examples its easier for people to envision the methodology better. I myself find it easier to understand when I have an example. I was also involved in making people aware of the rock bees (Apis dorsata) in apartment complexes. Since the rock bees generally build nests near balconies of apartments, people tend to kill off the colonies due to fear. By making people realise the importance of these bees and making them aware of their behaviour, it reduces such instances of colonies getting culled.

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

I’m not sure about important, because I think every work at the end of the day has its own importance. Personally, for me something that I find interesting is the work on personality and behavioural syndromes in animals. I think social insects are a great model system to study how individual variation might arise and how they might in turn affect group decisions. I feel more focus would be nice on this aspect in social insects.

Nest of Ropalidia cyathiformis.

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

I think in my field, one of the on-going debates is about the categorisation of social insects into different levels of sociality, where does one draw the line for eusociality and sociality and so on. 

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

I read the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson. It’s a sci-fi fantasy book series. I really love this genre and in particular I love world building, where there are clear rules about how the world works, which is really beautifully set in these books. Particularly the details of the world-building in this is just amazing!  

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

I love reading and music (both singing and listening). I also enjoy doodling, which is a relatively newfound hobby and I find it a huge stress buster. I also really enjoy doing improv.

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

My parents are my major source of support, the ability to talk to them and just vent out my frustrations and problem or just have a good cry has helped me in a long way. They have been very patient, understanding and extremely good listeners, I think that support has been one of the major reasons I survived through tough times.

Sruthi with her parents at her thesis defense.

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

My kindle for sure, filled with as much books as possible, I can’t imagine going anywhere without it. Also, my laptop and my headphones.

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

It’s hard to pinpoint one person, but my parents have been a great support. They supported me when I decided to choose a slightly different path than was the norm amongst my peers. Another person, I would have to say is my PhD advisor, Prof. Gadagkar. He has very strong ethics and methods of doing science and that has influenced how I myself conduct my research. How to ask good questions, how to design fool proof experiments and how to carry out the experiments without biases are some of the things I learnt from him. My current advisor, Dr. Axel Brockmann has also been a great supportive figure in my life. Brainstorming with him has been amazing and he has helped me appreciate and better understand the molecular and genetic underpinnings of behaviour.

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

To be patient, very patient. Research involving animals and studying them in their natural habitat would most often not go according to what you plan. Several times your model system might not cooperate, or the weather might not or maybe predators of the animal that you are studying might interfere and so on and so forth. There are so many unforeseen circumstances that might come about. Hence, if you ask me, the most important thing a researcher in this field would need is patience and not be dejected and lose hope, but rather strive ahead.

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

I would have to say Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. There was an IUSSI conference in Sao Paulo in Brazil and after the conference I took a trip to Rio and I absolutely loved it! I loved the place, its energy and people! The place was so vibrant and colourful.

IS: If you had unlimited funds to conduct whatever research you wanted, where would you go and what would you investigate?

I would want to investigate the different Ropalidia species that are found in India. There are several Ropalidia species, most of which have gone under the radar. With the strong base laid out by Prof. Gadagkar’s lab with the studies on Ropalidia marginata it could prove as a good comparison point for the other species. It will be especially interesting as there are various levels of sociality present within the Ropalidia genus and just as we found that R. cyathiformis and R. marginata make good examples of comparative systems to study the evolution of social insects, these species would also help in this direction. They make the perfect system to do comparative studies and understand the evolution of eusociality as these species are all of the same genus and have different levels of sociality. The potential for this study would be limitless.

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