Interview with (a) Social Insect Scientist(s): The Molecular Ecology Lab at UNESP, São Vicente, Brazil

Miguel Piovesana Pereira Romeiro, Gabriel Tofanelo Vanin, Marianne Azevedo-Silva and Gustavo Maruyama Mori, the authors of Natural history of Camponotus renggeri and Camponotus rufipes in an Atlantic Forest reserve, Brazil.

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

All:…We are researchers from Brazil with wide interest in ecology and evolution, focusing on different biological systems, including ants/social insects.

MAS works on molecular ecology of ants since 2011, with special interest in understanding patterns of genetic diversity and the underlying processes that maintain it at small spatial scales. Her work has been developed mainly in Brazilian cerrados, our Neotropical savanna. Likewise, GM is also interested in the intersection between ecology, evolution and genetics of neotropical organisms like mangrove trees and has learned to truly appreciate ants as he started working with Marianne a few years ago.

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

All:  We all perform basic research, in which our goal is to unveil the fundamentals of species attributes. Thus our research interest arose from the curiosity to understand behavior, ecology and natural history of species, including the most fundamental level of biodiversity, the genetic diversity.  Regarding our published paper in INSO (Pereira-Romeiro et al. 2022), it was a follow-up of previous studies conducted by MAS as an undergraduate student and during her masters. She participated in research with two carpenter ants, Camponotus renggeri and C. rufipes, in the Cerrado. Those findings raised the curiosity of MPPR and GTV to evaluate if similar patterns of ecology and natural history of these species would change with the environment. Thus, they investigated these Camponotus species at a different biome, the Atlantic Forest.

Figure 1. A perspective of a part of the Xixova-Japuí State Park, where the study was carried out. Specifically this area correspond to an inactive mining area within the protected area.

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

ALL: Definitely, ants! We are fascinated by the immense variation in natural history traits, modes of colony organization, and ecological roles played by these insects. We are also attracted by their huge species diversity, with many morphologies, and with the fact that they are extremely abundant and occur in almost all places around the world, remarkably in Brazil!

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

Gabriel: Definitely this moment was when I was able to observe the possible start of a nest being built on a single leaf.

Miguel: I would say this latest (and first!) publication is one of the most memorable! We had some tough moments during the development of this research, and seeing it pay off is definitely rewarding!

MAS: I think the best moment was during IUSSI 2022, when I realized that ants have taken me so far! Many people, mainly from outside academia, do not understand why I focus my research on ants and this, sometimes, makes me think if I am doing it right. However, when I see the number of places and people that I know due to ants, it makes me feel rewarded.

GM: I have been quite fortunate to work and learn with many colleagues and future colleagues. Seeing them defend their graduate and undergraduate theses, having their research accepted by peers and published are among the best moments in my research path.

Figure 2. Miguel takes a nap before he returns to the ants’ observation.

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

GM: In the genetics and evolutionary biology undergraduate courses I teach, I often emphasize how disciplinary subdivisions are human-made, not necessarily a nature’s feature. Within these courses, my goal is to explore the knowns and unknowns of each field, and discuss how they may relate to other disciplines like ecology, physiology, and systematics. Similarly, in the outreach activities my team carries out with high school students, we share our recent interdisciplinary discoveries with curious young students. Also, we discuss how enrolling in aHigh Education program may change one’s life, remarkably in a country like Brazil.

MAS: I communicate science mainly for my peers, during congress and symposiums. Sometimes, I also give classes for undergraduate Biological Sciences students. However, unfortunately, doing outreach/science communication outside academia is not a frequent practice for me, mainly now during my PhD. It is a practice that I hope to incorporate as soon as possible in my career.

GTV + MPPR: As undergraduate students, Gabriel and MPPR haven’t had as many opportunities to do outreach communication or even teaching. That being said, we’ve taken every opportunity we had, such as presenting talks or banners on congresses and symposiums, even though it might not reach an audience much broader than the scientific/myrmecology community itself.

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

All: Despite the incredible technological advances like the many “omics”, we still lack very basic information on social insects’ natural history, mainly in highly threatened habitat. For instance, in the Neotropics, a region with high diversity of social insects, we have little information on the species variation in colony organization, natural history and ecological traits across their distribution. Without such knowledge, we may obtain terabytes of omics data and misinterpret it. We believe that the current challenge is to appreciate and integrate many sources of information (like observations in the field and omics data). This is crucial to predict how social species will respond to anthropogenic changes and how the ecological roles played by them will be affected.

Figure 3. Miguel looking for carpenter ants.

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

All: We believe it is regarding how anthropogenic changes affect the different levels of social organization and how these modifications will alter the ecosystem services promoted by social insects.

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

GTV: The last book I read was “Outsiders” by Howard S. Becker. I would easily recommend it to anyone, as this book helped me understand a little better about society and served as a basis for several reflections.

MPPR: It has nothing to do with biology, or even science at all, but the last one I read was “The Shadow of Kyoshi”, by F. C. Yee. It was a blast, and a great way to wear off some of the pressure when needed! I highly recommend it to all fantasy lovers and fans of the Avatar franchise!

MAS: The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka. It is a bit disturbing, but I definitely recommend it! I read it for therapy, and recommend it for readers who like symbological texts about our society.

GM:I have recently read Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. It provides quite an interesting perspective on how one thinks and makes decisions, including bad ones. I do recommend it!

Figure 4. An unoccupied nest basically made of straw and dry leaves, similar to the ones we observed that were occupied by Camponotus renggeri and C. rufipes.

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

GTV: I like games, whether cards, boards or video games. Lately I’ve been playing a lot of Brawlhalla. I also like to sit at a bar table with friends and, whenever possible, challenge myself in the kitchen.

MPPR: I have always enjoyed spending time doing something art-related, mostly drawing. Beyond that, cooking and gaming (especially Pokémon) have always been a leisure. As of late, working out and practicing physical activities have also become part of the routine, and one that I like very much!

MAS: I have discovered a passion for arts! I have painted and drawn for therapeutic purposes and these have become my favorite activities nowadays. I also take classes of “forró”, a very typical Brazilian dance, which has become a hobby for me! Finally, I practice physical exercises almost everyday.

 GM: Music is my passion and I do enjoy live rock and heavy metal concerts! Also, I work out and practice physical activities like running and cycling regularly. Cooking regular (and ‘special’) meals is also part of my daily little pleasures.

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

GTV: I take necessary breaks, talk about problems that have arisen with different people – a lot of the answers and new ideas come from these conversations – and when I’m really confused, I take these challenging questions to my analyst, who has helped me get to know myself and deal better with different situations.

MPPR: Ideally, I would settle into a balanced routine that doesn’t allow for breakdowns to happen, but that isn’t always the case. When it gets rough, I like to take breaks and lean on the hobbies that make me comfortable. Also, having the support of family and friends helps wonders!

MAS: Fortunately, I have the support of my family and friends, which makes life much easier. However, therapy has been crucial for me since I started my PhD and this is my main strategy to deal with difficulties.

GM: As challenges appear, I do my best to take a step back and rationalize the difficult scenario. I often try to break it into smaller chunks to understand and evaluate it more clearly. It does not mean that I succeed most of the time. But I do consider it as part of my long term learning process. Having the support of loved ones makes everything much easier.

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

GTV: I would take my dog, Chewbie, to keep me company and also because she would love to sniff and run all over the island. Material for taking notes and drawing and a guitar.

MPPR: If this question refers only to survival equipment, I’d definitely bring a fishing rod, something to light up a fire and a swiss army knife. If not, I’d certainly bring a boat to get me out of there whenever I wanted!

MAS: First of all, my cats! I could not live apart from them! Secondly, a knife, that would help me to cut different stuff and protect myself. Finally, my material for drawing and painting!

GM: I hope this is a tropical island! I would bring a swiss army knife to survive, a tent for comfort, and snorkeling gear to appreciate the island both above and below the waterline.

Figure 5. Miguel (a) and Gabriel (b) building their ant neste made of autoclaved aerated concrete.

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

GTV: My teachers without a doubt, especially my advisor and friend Gustavo.

MPPR: As mentors, Gustavo and Marianne have definitely made a greater impact than they can imagine in my science career. Beyond them, listening to a talk by Natalia Pasternak has also shaped the way I view science as a whole.

MAS: Undoubtedly, my supervisor, Professor Paulo S. Oliveira. He always supported me and gave me opportunities to grow in my career. More than mentoring my master and PhD, Paulo and I have become good friends and he always gives me advice that makes me go further.

GM: I had the pleasure to learn a lot with prof. Sérgio Furtado dos Reis, who was an informal mentor when I was a PhD candidate. His perspectives on teaching and learning have carved my approach to scientific inquiry and teaching.

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

All: In view of our last published paper in INSO (Pereira-Romeiro et al. 2022), we would say: expect the unexpected. MPPR and GTV, lead authors of this paper, worked hard in the field to obtain the data and faced some challenges that are hard to imagine by Global North researchers – like having firearms pointed at them by police officers within the borders of a protected area. Moreover, our study system did not collaborate as well: Camponotus renggeri and C. rufipes frequently changed their nest location, which made it difficult for our team to observe the very same nests across seasons. It led to many adjustments in the original project. Finally, our research was affected by the COVID pandemic, forcing us to stop collecting data much earlier than planned. Thus, it is important to be prepared for the unexpected and, collectively in your research team, think of strategies to overcome it.

Such ‘behind-the-scenes’ experiences are not commonly shared, despite their impacts on our study, and this is why more ‘informal’ venues like the Insectes Sociaux blog are really valuable!

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

GTV: This was one of the most difficult questions for me. Choosing a single place was not an easy task. As I have to choose one, the Parque Estadual Marinho Laje de Santos, a marine protected area, was the last paradise I had the opportunity to visit as part of the rehabilitation team of a NGO. Seeing an enormous amount of boobies and a humpback whale mother with her calf was truly an unforgettable experience.

MPPR: Science has taken me to some places I would have never expected. One place that comes to mind is the Itatiaia National Park, as I spent some time there during an internship. What an amazing place!

MAS: Ants have taken me so far! I have been to places that I never thought about before. I think the most incredible one was Japan, where I spent three months for an Internship during my masters.

GM: I had the opportunity to live for approximately eight months on a Japanese tropical island, Iriomote. It is such a marvelous place. There, one may find an amazing sea, a well preserved forest and lovely welcoming people.

If you want to know more about the research and researchers in the Molecular Ecology Lab at UNESP, check out their website.

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