Interview with a Social Insect Scientist: Madison Sankovitz

We will start off this years blog with an old friend. Madison has been Insectes Sociaux’s Social Media Editor until 2021. Her Insectes Sociaux article how the effects of ants on soil vary with elevation by comparing moisture, carbon, and nitrogen levels in soil samples can be found here.

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

MS: I am a PostDoc, and I study ecology and genomics of social insects. My dissertation centers on understanding how ants build soil nests in different temperature environments and how climate plays a role in their ability to be ecosystem engineers. I am also a queer woman, and I think diversity in humans leads to a better world, just as diversity in insects does!

Madison in the lab. The research for the Insectes Sociaux Paper was done during her PhD. She is now a Postdoc at the University of Boulder, Colorado.

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

MS: I have been obsessed with insects ever since I was a little kid. When I was five years old, if you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said “entomologist”! But I didn’t know that studying insects was an actual career path. I happened to take an animal behavior course on a whim during college, and it changed so much for me. The professor, Dr. Mike Breed, was teaching the class about his honey bee research, and I remembered my early love of these animals. Mike ended up being a tremendous mentor to me, helping me through my first ant research and encouraging me to apply to graduate school. He also took me to my first IUSSI meeting, where I remember thinking, I’ve found my people!

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

MS: It’s hard to pick just one! As of now, my favorite is ants. Not only do they dominate soil ecosystems globally through their division of labor and outstanding architectural skills, but they offer a bottomless well of questions related to the evolution of sociality. But this answer may change as I learn more about other amazing insects throughout my career!

Clearly, our interviewee has changed her favourite insect over time. Although we must admit, butterflies are cool, so we’ll let it slide 🙂

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

MS: For some of my dissertation research, I built large ant farms and custom temperature chambers to observe ants building nests under the influence of various temperatures at the soil surface. Designing and building the boxes took a long time and lots of hard work and collaboration. It was the most incredible moment when I started to see the ants finally making a home in my boxes and knew I would be able to collect valuable data from my creation.

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

MS: I view science communication as an integral part of my research. My work as a scientist feels incomplete if I’m not always working on a communication project alongside my research. Over time this has taken various forms, but currently, I am focusing my efforts on improving my infographic and data visualization skills so that anyone can understand my research.

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

MS: Understanding how we can harness the power of beneficial insects, both above and below ground, to make our agricultural practices more sustainable. Assessing the complex global factors leading to pollinator decline and developing methods to mitigate the harm.

For her PhD, Madison studied the fascinating topic of ant nest building in soil.

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

MS: Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. I would highly recommend it. It’s loosely based on Robert’s life, a robber and heroin addict from Australia who escaped prison and went to live in Bombay, India. The book explores various sides of love, happiness, friendship, pain, and regret. What it teaches most is the power of forgiveness and compassion, both towards yourself and others, in living a free life. Learning to let go to keep moving forward.

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

MS: I spend a lot of time making art, including drawing, painting, collaging, and printmaking. I adore my bicycles and ride them to both familiar and unexplored places. Roller skating is another highlight of my days – I love being on wheels!

A bee collecting pollen for her colony.

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

I am lucky to have a support system through family and friends. This idea of the solitary Ph.D. student is nonsense. I can indeed attribute my success to my hard work and ambition, but also to the support of my people, who are always there for me.

I love reading interviews where creative people speak openly about failure. There’s a fantastic book I’ve read over and over called In the Company of Women, where makers, artists, and entrepreneurs give very candid advice. For the most part, everyone fails before they succeed. And only delusional people get through life without feeling like a huge loser and/or imposter at some point.

I try my best to get into a state of flow with my work. When I completely immerse myself in my work and lose a sense of time and all other to-dos, I forget how tough it can be, and I remember what I truly love about entomology.

Finally, I remind myself how lucky I am to wake up every day and do what I do. I put myself in the shoes of young Madison and think about how ecstatic she would be to know where her future self is at in life.

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

There is no formula for success –just begin and then continue. Do the work over and over again. Everything worthwhile takes time.

You don’t need to give up parts of yourself to be a scientist. In fact, the more facets of life you explore, and the more dimensions of yourself you bring to the table, the better scientist you will be.

Don’t be afraid to express your genuine excitement about social insects! The world doesn’t need more closed-off researchers working away in the lab 24/7. Share your excitement and love for what you do.

Finally, keep doing what you enjoy, and don’t be afraid to go after what you want! Trust yourself and your ideas. You know best what you’re capable of.

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

MS: During college, I spent a semester in Australia studying rainforest, reef, and cultural ecology. Those ecosystems are vastly different than the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, where I had done all my scientific studies thus far, and I was constantly blown away by their rich species diversity and beauty. It was also the first time I really observed the effects of anthropogenic climate change; I saw coral bleaching and deforestation first-hand. It significantly changed my understanding of the state of the world and my motivations for being a scientist.