Interview with a Social Insect Scientist: Clea Santos Ferreira Mariano

Clea’s article, where she and her co-authors Érica Araújo, Jacques Delabie reviewed current definitions of somatic developmental anomalies in ants and propose a simplified classification system, can be found here.

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

I am Brazilian and live in the state of Bahia, in the Brazilian northeast. My background is in entomology, focusing on the diversity and development of ants through the prism of cytogenetics. Recently, I have also studied the diversity of commensals that live in and around ant colonies. I teach zoology at one of the state universities of Bahia, UESC, at Ilhéus.

Photo of the authors, from left to right: Érica Araújo, Jacques Delabie and Cléa Mariano, at the State University of Santa Cruz, Ilhéus-BA

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

During my undergraduate course, I had a professor with excellent training in entomology, the late Max de Menezes. He opened my eyes to the interest in working with insects, but it was through the opportunity to go to the field to help a good friend (Riviane Bellenand) to collect ant nests (Ectatomma tuberculatum) that I discovered what I really wanted to do. It was also around that time that I started to become interested in the morphology of ants as I observed rare malformed individuals with genetic or developmental abnormalities in the laboratory. I found this fascinating and ever since then, I have been accumulating information and material on these aspects.

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

I am fascinated by ants in general, mainly because of their diversity of life habits. What I find most exciting about these organisms is that, despite being recognized as being so organized with long-awaited life patterns, there is always a species that breaks the rules, that doesn’t follow the pre-defined models. However, the ants I am more in love with are the Ponerinae of the genus Neoponera. They preferentially live in forests or agroforests, where they are rather diverse because some species can live on the ground and others on the trees, and they offer a great variation in size, behavior and use of resources. These ants are fantastic animals!

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

When I began to study the chromosomes of Ponerinae ants, karyotypes allowed me to establish well-defined groups of species not only from their chromosome characters, but also from other reasons, such as morphology and strata explored in their environment. For me, it was more evidence that cytogenetics had a great potential for studying biological diversity. Currently, we see everywhere that studies on cryptic species or integrative taxonomy and cytogenetics are a tool which allows exploring that.

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

In the undergraduate course where I am teaching, I include scientifically dissemination content of the topics studied (invertebrate zoology and social insect biology), to show to students how to bring scientific content closer to the non-academic community. In the postgraduate program in zoology, to which I am linked, we have two disciplines related to scientific dissemination with the aim not only to publicize the research work carried out, but also to prepare students in the production of this kind of material (with the theme of their own projects) in order to reach the non-academic public.

Field Travel to Belmonte with the lab team, 04/2015

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

I think it is essential that social insect scholars know the processes of evolution and maintenance of sociality, since these aspects modulate important characters of social groups. Access to this knowledge does not always imply the use of methods that include technological innovation. Natural history studies allow not only the interpretation of the mechanisms that maintain sociality, but also open doors to investigations not yet carried out. I make this observation especially in the scenario in which I am inserted: in a country and region with an exceptional biodiversity, but with a limited access to financial resources destined for so-called “basic” research. I have the privilege of being allowed to carry out experiments and observations within the grounds of my own institution (UESC) but also in the experimental areas of a close partner (Laboratory of Myrmecology at Centro de Pesquisas do Cacau CEPEC/CEPLAC), both within the Brazilian Atlantic Forest domain. This region has still an incredible potential to be explored for further studies on social insects, which sometimes compensates for the lack of resources in research investment.

I believe that integrative studies are fundamental for the future of research on social insects, i.e. putting together two or more of these disciplines: taxonomy, morphology and anatomy, genetics, behavior, biogeography, community ecology (mutualism, commensalism, competition, etc.). Also all the topics traditionally considered “natural history” are important and cannot be forgotten.

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

I am especially interested in the nature of interactions between social insects and the organisms associated with them, whether in their nests or inside their own body: how these relationships are established, what are the recognition mechanisms that “allow” the entry and fixing of these organisms to the social organisms (for ants, see the paper of von Beeren et al., 2021, Frontiers in Zoology

Comite of Organization, Myrmecology Meeting at Ilheus, 2015

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

As a scientific book, the last book that I read was the biography of Alexandre Yersin (Peste et Choléra, Patrick Deville, Femina Literary Prize in France in 2012). I strongly recommend it not only for the exceptional life of this scientist but mainly because this text is an ode to perseverance, which may be one of the first qualities of a researcher.  

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

Cooking and reading. I also love going to the beach. The entire coastline of Bahia is wonderful.

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

I remember hard times I have gone through, I think of other people who had fewer opportunities or who went through bigger problems than mine, I breathe and try to move on (sometimes this can take a few days).

Exploring ant nest in the cocoa pod.

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

A pad of paper, a box of pencils – to write, talk to myself and plan for the future. And a blanket, to feel myself welcomed.

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

I would be unfair if I didn’t name the three people who have influenced me the most in my career:

Jacques Delabie is an example of the generosity of a person who, in a conversation, can lead you to think of a thousand projects, who strives that each one he works with grows, offers opportunities for everyone to succeed. He always encouraged me, during our conversations and our coexistence.

My graduate advisor, Dr. Silvia Pompolo, who is an exigent (in the good sense) professional and is for me the personification of the necessary care for research work, the exact application of laboratory protocols; always fair and interested in everything new in social Hymenoptera cytogenetics.

Finally, I cannot forget Professor Lucio Campos, who managed (before he retired) to stimulate any student’s interest in social insects, simply by talking during a walk from the university to the city center.

All of them I consider influential for me not only because they supported and guided me in the beginning of my research, but also because of the example of human resources trainers that they are.

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

Do not make a prejudgment, open your eyes, don’t get stuck in a bubble, however good your research proposal may seem.

“Innovation” research currently represents progress, but there is still much that can be studied in social insects.

Be curious, read a lot and observe even more; for each question you have already answered continue with “what if…?”

Listen to the more experienced, but also ask your own questions and hypothesize.

Work as a team; follow the example of social insects.

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

Tropical forests are my favorite places, especially the Amazon. The strength and, at the same time, the fragility of this type of environment are impressive. Just thinking that the answers to so many questions about the diversity of life are in front of us and we can help to understand and that we can lose so much richness in a few generations leaves me astonished…

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