Interview with a Social Insect Scientist: Inácio Teles e Gomes

You can read Inácio’s recent research article about the natural history, habitat preferences and population dynamics of Pheidole oxyops here.

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

I am Inácio Teles e Gomes, a young Brazilian ecologist who uses ants and their interactions as his favorite model to test many ecological theories and hypotheses. Moreover, the biology and natural history of some ant species also amuse me. I´m a postdoc at Universidade Federal de Viçosa, in Viçosa, a little countryside town in the state with the best food available in Brazil: Minas Gerais.

Fieldwork in the Pantanal wetlands, Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil

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

The roots of my interest in the natural history of our world come from my early childhood. It is hard to define a reason or a unique stimulus. I´ve always been a science enthusiast. I used to read about astronomy, dinosaurs, I love documentaries about nature, I really loved my atlases about the world and the human body (by the way, give children an atlas!). When I decided to study Biological Sciences, I became drawn to ant ecology due to a number of factors such as luck in finding the right people and opportunities in my way and the amazing world of the ant societies, their importance to the world and the great answers they can give to us.

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

I suppose at this point I have given out a spoiler. I really like all social insects, specially the Hymenoptera, but ants are for sure my favorite ones. Their importance to the planet, to biodiversity and the role they have on the ecosystems they occur are enthralling. In addition, the answers they can provide to our ecological and biological questions make them even more special.

Experimental study on the Azteca ant’s effects on their mutualist Cecropia plants. Atlantic rainforest fragment in Viçosa, Minas Gerais, Brazil.

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

The answer to this question comes from the first question I had in the beginning of college and that became the central idea of my first scientific study. In the city I lived at that time, I used to see many ant’s nests with feathers around their entrances and asked myself why.  We were finally able to publish the paper a few years later, “Why do Pheidole oxyops ants place feathers around their nests?” (Gomes et al 2019) and it had a great repercussion in the social media, many blogs and sites worldwide published articles about the study and even Scientific American came to interview me. Normally we have the feeling that only few people are reading our work but at this time I was sure that its reach was greater.

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

Unfortunately, in the last years I am more distant from science outreach than I would like. I was a teacher for a few years before engaging my doctorate studies. During this time and undergrad, I engaged in many science outreach projects and environmental education, from children to elderly people, and from very poor communities to upper class schools. One of those projects was a school’s demand to apply the project-based learning with a 5 years-old students’ class that had had many experiences with leaf-cutting ants in their vegetable garden and with fire ants’ attacks on some students. This one-year experience working close with those children and their teacher was particularly awesome and also became an article, “The role of the project-based learning in the construction of scientific knowledge: working environmental education concepts using ants as models” (“O papel do Ensino por Projetos na construção de conhecimento científico: trabalhando conceitos de Educação Ambiental utilizando formigas como objeto de estudo”) (Faria et al 2012), but sadly it is available only in Portuguese.

            In informal contexts, I have always expressed a scientific explanation and point of view regarding various matters, particularly to friends and others who are interested in listening. I try to make some of my profiles in social media a place for science communication for all, and not only within my scientific circle. However, I admit I should be doing more. These dark times of science denial require from us (but not us only!) to kick up our heels and do better science communication.

Seed removal experiment in a dry forest in Jataí, Goiás, Brazil.

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

            Social insects are crucial for the functioning of ecosystems as we know them. The biomass of ants and termites represents a great part of the animal biomass in terrestrial systems and some of the processes they are involved in are not even still acknowledged. Bees are the key drivers of pollination. However, we are just beginning to understand all the patterns and mechanisms that maintain such services. Unfortunately, we also know very little about the basic biology and natural history of most of those species, especially those from the tropics. I really count on such studies to be more valued and encouraged.

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

            I think that the origins and maintenance of sociality are still a good issue for debate, but I´m not updated about this theme. Ant-research wise, the existence and/or importance of different trade-offs in many ant ecological traits, at different scales, from the individual to community, is a good example of controversy.

The author’s lab team in the Campos Rupestre (rocky-grasslands) of Serra do Cipó, Minas Gerais, Brazil.

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

Beyond the scientific literature, the last books I read were a three book series of epic fantasy novels called Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson. I think that if you like fantasy, you would like this series, the author creates a novel concept of magic and is very interesting, although it is quite youth literature.

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

I really like the outdoors, trekking or just hanging out and having fun with friends, at the beach or visiting a waterfall. But my favorite hobby for sure is to play volleyball. I once had to choose between trying to be a professional player or going ahead with studies. The academia won me over but I look forward to every moment spent on a court playing.

The author’s ‘hobby team’.

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

I am an optimistic person! I cannot remember a moment that things were tougher than now, especially in Brazil, and especially for scientists and teachers. But I believe we can turn the tables. The opposite of believing is death.

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

When you ask so, I promptly imagine a tropical island. In that case, I would bring good sunglasses, a good book and a comfortable pillow.

Mount Roraima, Venezuela.

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

I have met many remarkable scientists and professors in my career and many of them influenced me positively, while others negatively. But Professor Ricardo Campos introduced me to the world of ants when he was doing his PhD and I was only a freshman. We have been part of the same professional groups ever since and I am really grateful for this partnership.

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

My advice goes not only to insect researchers but to everyone and anyone who wants a career in academia: do not go with the flow and think hard if this is what you really want. It’s a hard climb to the top and not everyone makes it – it does not only depend on hard work. If that researcher plans to find work in Brazil, I would suggest, think twice, three, four times if that is what you want. Being a researcher in Brazil nowadays is hard! But if that is what you have chosen to do, then I recommend lots of reading, try to learn as much as you can from everyone, and don’t be shy to display your abilities and weaknesses. And never let the academic arrogance possess you!

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

That´s a hard one! I have been to so many wonderful places because of science! But one that frequently pops into my mind is the archipelago of Anavilhanas, the second largest river archipelago of the world, in the upper Rio Negro, in the heart of the Amazon Forest. The brightest night sky is there!

The beautiful sunset of the Archipelago of Anavilhanas, Amazonas River, Brazil.