Interview with a Social Insect Scientist: Ajay Kumar Harit

You can read Ajay’s recent research article about x-ray tomography to compare construction properties of the nests of wood-feeding and fungus-growing termite species here.

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

Hi, I am Ajay Kumar Harit and are presently working as a Research Associate -III at the School of Environmental Science, Mahatma Gandhi University, PD Hills, Kottayam, Kerala, India. I have been studying termite biology, behaviour, and its influence on natural ecosystems and society for over 14 years. During this tenure, I was part of several national and international funded projects related to termites. I will continue exploring the special attributes of termites for as long as possible.  

Our interviewee, Ajay Kumar Harit

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

I have started my journey with termites 2007 onwards as my Master of Philosophy (MPhil) dissertation work and it has been going on until now. I obtained my Master degree (MSc) in Zoology with specialisation in entomology, but build-up my interest in termite research after my MPhil degree when I gathered more knowledge about termites and their importance in nature.

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

Termites, because they are one of the oldest social insects and are well-developed, highly systematic, and civilized. They play a significant role in soil and nutrient dynamics in the natural forest ecosystem. The unique quality of termites is the degradation of lignocellulosic waste (only this insect has this capability). Termites are also globally used as medicine by some of the ethnic communities. They are also consumed by human beings and other animals as they contain high-quality protein. 

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

I personally felt, my entire research journey is memorable, each and every moment has its own story to express.  Although for me, most memorable and challenging was the Ex-situ development (Rearing/culturing) of termite colonies under laboratory condition and its application in degradation of lignocellulosic waste, which I achieved during my doctoral work. 

In my career, culturing of termites in the laboratory and observing the first batch of termite eggs in my culture was the best moment of my research (that day I was the happiest person in my department), and has given me immense pleasure as well as the confidence to pursue and complete my research work.  

A typical nuptial chamber (A), termite eggs and adults (B), The adult and the nymphs performing trophallaxis (C), and nymphs, young once, adult, and the pillar-like structure constructed by young once at initial stage of colony development at laboratory condition (D)

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

Truly, I do not do it directly or in a systematic approach, but I do it indirectly when sharing my findings with my teachers, colleagues, friends, students and scientific social network sites such as Research Gate, Academia, Google Scholar etc. In addition, I also discuss the findings of my research with other scientist groups, local people, farmers, and staff of the forest department to get their point of view and suggestions.

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

Working with social insects is laborious work, time-consuming and often field-oriented, which is less appreciated by society and other research groups. However, social insects play a significant role in sustainable development. In the last decade, less importance has been given by funding agencies to conduct research on social insects due to the very limited number of scientists working on social insects, globally.

Also of notice, very few students express their interest to study and research social insects because of limited job opportunities. To overcome this, we should call for multiple research approaches and methods-based projects, meaning collaborative research with an allied subject should be conducted. We need to build-up teams/groups of scientists based on the different social insects they study, national-wise, state-wise, and if possible, area/district-wise. 

Discussion with staff from the forest department and team members: Ajay Kumar Harit

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

This depends on the situation and demand to nature, society, and evolution. Particularly the influence of termites in natural ecosystems is poorly explored when compared to other social insects like bees and wasp as well as other ecosystem engineers such as earthworms. Termites also play a big role in nature, society, and even for human beings. I think it is a debatable question why termites have been given moderate importance compared to other social insects.   Also, we should focus on the exploration of new aspects of social insects especially termites, their biodiversity, and comparative studies among other groups of insects. 

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

Currently, I am reading two books:

1) How Insects Work, An Illustrated Guide to the Wonders of Form and Function―from Antennae to Wings by Marianne Taylor (2020).

2) Extraordinary Insects: Weird Wonderful by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson (2019)

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

Spending time with family and friends, exploring a new place, meditation, cooking, listening to music, reading, and cricket.

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

I talk to my family and friends, meditate, or spend time cooking and listening to music. Sometimes I also like to go near water bodies (river or sea; based on the condition) and relax. 

Sample collection during a field visit at a semi-evergreen forest by Mr. Naveen Babu (right) and Ajay Kumar Harit (left)

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

Some study material as it will be good to study in this undisturbed area, some cooking stuff to try a new dish and some electronic safety device to communicate in an emergency and protect me.

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

Three people play a significant role in my research career: my Ph.D. supervisor (Dr. S. Gajalakshmi), and my PDF mentors (Dr. Pascal Jouquet and Dr. E.V. Ramasamy), and of couse my family members. These are the four pillars that taught me different aspects of research and improved my research career. 

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

People have wrong opinions about social insects, especially termites, which are totally misleading to society as well as young people. Whereas termites play a significant role in society as well as in the ecosystem. We just need to explore the special attributes of termites such as degradation on lignocellulosic waste, found in huge quantities. The handling of this waste is a big problem around the globe. However, termites can handle it in a very efficient way as they do it in the natural ecosystem. I think this aspect should be explored in future work.

Secondly, termites also play an incredible role in soil and nutrients dynamic, which is also not much appreciated. Termite mound soil has a higher nutrient value in comparison to the surrounding soil, which could be used as manure for agricultural fields to enhance the soil fertility, as proven by African researchers. This needs to receive more attention in the future. 

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

Pondicherry University, Puducherry, The Indo-French Cell for water science (IFCW), Civil Engineering Department, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore (IISC), India, and the Western Ghats region of Kerala (forest and water bodies). Such a nice experience to explore many beautiful places and learning a lot, which I never expected during my graduate and postgraduate education.

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