Interview with a Social Insect Scientist: Joe Velenovsky

You can read Joe’s recent research article about protozoan abundance of Coptotermes gestroi and formosanus kings and queens during the transition from biparental to alloparental care here.

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

My name is Joseph Francis Velenovsky IV, but I go by Joe. I am a Ph.D. candidate working in the Chouvenc/Su labs at the University of Florida’s Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center. My research focuses on the mutualistic protozoa within Coptotermes formosanus and Coptotermes gestroi. For this publication we investigated the abundance of protozoa within kings and queens during incipient colony development. We found that the protozoan abundance of both C. formosanus and C. gestroi kings and queens changes dramatically during this time. A large portion of my Ph.D. work is focused on determining the protozoan community of C. formosanus/C. gestroi hybrids. I specifically am investigating how the community changes during incipient colony development and which protozoa are harbored by older hybrid colonies. This study system has afforded me the opportunity to investigate incredibly interesting questions about termite biology and symbiosis.      

Joe Velenovsky while on a hike at Fern Forest Nature Center in Coconut Creek, Florida.

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

I developed an interest in social insects while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in biology at Towson University. When I began my studies at Towson, I thought I was going to pursue a career in marine mammalogy because that had been my dream since I was a child growing up in Ocean City, Maryland. My aspirations quickly changed while I was working with Cryptocercus during an undergraduate research experience in Mark Bulmer’s lab. I became fascinated with Cryptocercus and the works of Christine Nalepa. After completing my bachelor’s degree, I went on and completed a master’s at Towson on antifungal defenses in Cryptocercus and termites.         

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

My favorite social insect is not a eusocial insect, but rather the subsocial xylophagous cockroach Cryptocercus. I personally find Cryptocercus adorable because of its nesting habits, morphology, and monogamous mating system. Aside from these reasons and perhaps more importantly, Cryptocercus is my favorite social insect because it is an excellent extant model of what the ancestor of Cryptocercus and termites may have been like.     

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

One of the best moments in my research thus far was when Mark and I successfully identified the antifungal gene termicin within Cryptocercus. This was memorable for me because I was part of finding out that both Cryptocercus and termites have termicins, and therefore that the antifungal defenses of Cryptocercus and termites likely were present in the ancestor of both groups. During my Ph.D., there have been quite a few memorable discoveries that I am excited to share with the scientific community as I complete my doctorate.   

A soldier and an egg mass from a 3-year-old laboratory-reared C. gestroi colony. Photograph by Thomas Chouvenc.

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

I currently do not teach or do outreach, but while at Towson I was both a TA and adjunct faculty member, and I hope to make teaching a large part of my career after my doctorate. While at Towson, I incorporated both Cryptocercus and Reticulitermes into my introductory biology labs during the unit on evolution and natural selection. One of my favorite teaching activities was bringing a family group of Cryptocercus to the lab and allowing students to see these unique cockroaches up close.

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

One area of social insect research that I think is of particular importance is the study of social insects that have become established outside of their native range. Social insects are often successful invaders if given the opportunity by human activities. Within its introduced range, C. gestroi is a serious threat to both structures and native tree species (see Chouvenc and Foley 2018 in Florida Entomologist). There are countless other examples among termites, ants, bees, and wasps of invasive social insects having highly detrimental effects on native species within their introduced range. I believe that the study of invasive social insects is a high priority within social insect research, that researchers should continue to examine the impacts that invaders have on native species, and that investigating differences between the biology of social insects in their native range compared to their introduced range is of the utmost importance.

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

An area of particular contention among social insect researchers is the evolution of eusociality within the different social insect groups. Since we cannot travel back in time and observe the evolutionary process ourselves, it is likely that these debates will continue. The differences between the evolution of eusociality in termites compared to Hymenoptera is an incredibly interesting area that should continue to be a focus of research.   

Pseudotrichonympha, Holomastigotoides, and Cononympha from C. gestroi. Micrograph by Joe Velenovsky.

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

The last book I read besides social insect and biological literature was Is Fred in the Refrigerator? by Shala Nicely. The book is a memoir about the author that details her experiences with OCD. As someone who was diagnosed with OCD at an early age, I found the book entertaining and inspiring. I would recommend the book not only to individuals with anxiety disorders, but also to other people because the book is a good read and does a great job of showing that OCD is nearly always not the disorder that is portrayed in popular culture.     

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

I enjoy going on walks and looking for unique insects and plants with my girlfriend Jean. I also am an avid runner. I like to run both shorter distances such as 400m and 800m sets and longer distances such as a 15K. I can see a half-marathon in my future, but I am not ready quite yet.  

Joe Velenovsky observing a large dragonfly (Aeshnidae) at Fern Forest Nature Center in Coconut Creek, Florida.

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

I attempt to be present in the moment and to primarily focus on a single task at a time. I am not always successful, but I have found that attempting to be mindful enhances my productivity and decreases my level of stress. I also run a lot as I mentioned previously.   

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

I would bring a multi-position ladder and a machete because these items should assist me in gathering fruits and protecting myself from predators and weather. Assuming that I am leaving my old life behind to live on an uninhabited island, I believe I would bring a solar-powered laptop so that I could document the organisms on the island. My hope would be that one day that laptop would be found.

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

I have been incredibly fortunate to have learned from a lot of great scientists during my academic career, but if I had to pick one researcher who has had the greatest influence on my growth as a researcher, I would pick my advisor Thomas Chouvenc. He is a brilliant researcher who always strives to see the “big picture” and has taught me to attempt to do the same. He also has taught me that time is the most important asset I have and that how I spend my days is actually how I spend my life.      

Pseudotrichonympha leei from C. gestroi. Micrograph by Joe Velenovsky.

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

My advice for undergraduates that are interested in social insect research is to become involved in a social insect lab while in undergrad and to read and comprehend the literature. Performing research in undergrad is really the only way to find out if you enjoy research because you can read about research extensively, but until you are actually in the lab it is impossible to know if you enjoy the research process.    

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

I have been fortunate to have visited Gillian Gile’s lab at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona a few times during my doctorate. Gillian and her lab members are a huge part of the research I am leading on the protozoa of C. formosanus/C. gestroi hybrids, and I thoroughly enjoyed visiting her lab and learning from her and her lab members. I also enjoyed the change in climate while visiting Arizona and the different insects and plants compared to Florida.

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