We met with top biologist Dr. Adam Hart to discuss his fascination with bugs, hear his advice to students today, and much more. Enjoy!
Insect expert Adam Hart discusses why insects fascinate us and why some form social communities. Student Karina Macosko delves into why he chose to study insects; the role his parents had in forming his interests; his dilemma in choosing between mathematics, languages, and biology; and his advice to students.
My bit of advice is never pass up the opportunity to learn something new, because you never know when it might come in useful.” – Dr. Adam Hart
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(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)
Karina Macosko: Hi, my name is Karina Macosko from AcademicInfluence.com and I’m here with Professor Hart.
So Professor Hart, we wanna know, what influenced you to go into the field you went into?
Adam Hart: I guess a few things really. First of all, my parents. Both of my parents were scientists, they both worked in science, in the life sciences, although my dad was a big fan of kind of physics and chemistry and stuff, my mom was more into the biology. But I grew up in that sort of environment where I had sort of science around me. And I guess the other thing is the area that I grew up in. So I grew up by the cost, I spent lots of time outside... I was always diving into rock pools and stuff, and I loved all of that kind of mixture of outdoors and nature and stuff was just absolutely what kind of thrilled me when I was little, so I guess that linked with... Linked with the science in my home background just... I always felt that I would end up doing science in some way, I never really had any doubt that that’s what I’d end up doing.
Karina: Wow, and you study mostly social insects, but can you tell us what makes an insect social or what makes an insect that’s social different from one that’s not?
Adam: Yeah, it’s a curious phrase, isn’t it, social insects. Lots of insects you find living together, right, so you can find lots of locusts, for example, in one place or beetles. The big difference between insects being together in what we call the social insects, is with the social insects, what you have is a colony structure, almost a family structure, where you’ll have a Queen and that Queen is the reproductive... Yeah, so she’s the one that lays all the eggs... She’s kind of the egg-laying part of the colony, and then you’ve got the non-reproductive, or largely non-reproductive workers, and they’re more or less sterile, although there’s lots of gradations in that, and they’re doing all the work of the colony. So you’ve got this sort of Colony, sometimes called a super-organism, where you have the reproductive center of it, the Queen, and you’ve got all the work is almost like the body of the organism, and it’s the colony that’s getting going, so you’ve got within the social insects, so the ants, the termites, some of the bees and some of the wasps, you have this really integrated family unit, where they’re all working together in a much more sort of meaningful way than you might find in insects that are just... Happen to be together in the same place.
Karina: Wow, that is really interesting. And why did you choose to study social insects or just insects in general?
Adam: Well, it’s an interesting story actually, it’s partly out of the fact I didn’t like early mornings. So I was really interested in social behavior, and I still am. So I was interested in looking at things like sort of social behavior, highly cooperative birds and mammals that live together in social groups, and I started applying for PhDs to do that. And then at the same time, I was living in a place called Sheffield in the United Kingdom, and there was a great lab there that a friend of mine worked at, so I went along and helped out for a bit, and they studied ants and bees, and the guy that was running that lab just sort of said to me, look, you don’t need to get up at 4 o’clock in the morning to go and ring birds, you can study the same questions in insects.
And what’s more, as well as having, you know, a lion, which at the time seemed quite... Seemed quite a luxury, you also have really big sample sizes because these things are quite easy to live with, or to work with, and I started thinking, actually, what interested me... I love mammals and birds, and I spent a lot of time watching them and observing then and studying them now, but I realized what really drove me was the sort of theoretical questions behind that. And that I could answer those questions and get more into this idea of cooperative living by looking at social insects, so I sort of became... I was interested in bugs and stuff, generally, but I kinda became an entomologist by mistake, really, and by the fact that it seems it seemed like a better way to answer some of the questions that I was looking at.
Karina: Well, that is such a happy coincidence, and are social insects, the way that they’re structured, is it similar to humans at all?
Adam: There are some really strong parallels actually, but also some really massive differences. So the biggest difference, of course, is that although we live in a very social world, and actually at the moment, our social living is causing us a few problems actually, but we don’t live in a world where our reproduction is divvied out so that we have some individuals that reproduce and the rest of us kind of help them to rear their offspring, we don’t have that sort of society, but interestingly, if you look at ants, for example, or bees or termites, they have quite similar problems. They have a waste problem, which is one of the things that I study quite a lot, just like our societies do, they produce an awful lot of waste, they have parasites and diseases, same as we do, and they can combat those to a certain extent using social structures just like we do. So there are some really interesting parallels, they have roadways, if you like, trails, which they have to organize, they have a work-force they have to organize using things like division of labor, which you find in factories, so actually there are some really interesting parallels between humans and social insects, and particularly between our systems, the way that we try to organize things in them, but obviously, as with all things, that breaks down once you look too deeply, and of course, then they live a very different life to us, but there are some interesting parallels.
Karina: Well, I have to say, I have never thought as much about the social structure of insects, but it really is interesting. And you mentioned how you grew up kind of like thinking that you wanted to be a scientist, but when you were my age or when you were going off to college, did you know right then that you wanted to be a biologist, or even though you wanted to study insects?
It's a funny thing, right, you get to a certain stage in your career or any point in your life actually, and you can sort of look back and you can kind of pretend that you knew what you were doing and you had this pathway mapped, but in reality you don't, right, you just make a series of decisions at different points and you end up where you are.” – Dr. Adam Hart
Adam: No, I didn’t really, I just... It’s a funny thing, right, you get to a certain stage in your career or any point in your life actually, and you can sort of look back and you can kind of pretend that you knew what you were doing and you had this pathway mapped, but in reality you don’t, right, you just make a series of decisions at different points and you end up where you are.
I always knew I wanted to get involved in science, so I went to study science as an undergraduate. Past that, I didn’t really have that much of an idea. I didn’t really know at that stage what a PhD was, I didn’t really understand about that sort of process. So all of that sort of came later, but I knew that I wanted to be involved in science, I knew that I wanted to be involved in some way in biology. I knew that I knew I wanted to see more of the world as well, I knew I wanted to travel around and perhaps link... Link those things together, but I didn’t really have a well-formed idea of where I was going and... Yeah, I guess perhaps in some ways I should have, but actually I think what was more important for me was that I had... I had an overall direction, I knew that this stuff interested me, that life and biology and science interested me, and that sort of provided a general road way, if you like, I just wasn’t exactly sure where it was going at any given point, but it worked out in the end.
Karina: Yeah, well, I’m glad it worked out. And do you think, looking back you would have done anything differently, like gone into a different major or started at a different point?
Adam: Do you know... A couple of things I might have done. I used to love maths, and I still do. But when I went to university and I sorta switched into doing a lot of biology and things, I kind of left maths behind a little bit, and we did a bit of maths in the first year, and obviously you do statistics and stuff, but I kinda wish I’d carried on almost as a hobby, getting involved with maths and perhaps a bit of computer coding, that would have been a good skill to have. And I guess also, and were often it faltered for this in the English speaking world, but less so in the States, but I probably would have liked to have learned a foreign language to a better degree.
I spent quite a lot of time in Mexico and Central America studying social insects, for example, and my Spanish is... Is ugly at best. I can get by in situ... I can order things and get buy in situations and make things happen, but it’s not very polite, and it’s not very pleasant. So I think I would have maybe looked at improving some languages and things like that, and just develop some of those skills, you never know what skills you need as a biologist, I found myself doing all kinds of crazy things. I’m... Even now I’ve launched about 10 hot air balloons now all been involved in the launch and the taking down of them, so I can even put that on my CV as part, you know... Because we teach field trips where they go, so you pick up all kinds of skills as you go along, so I would say never... My bit of advice is to never pass up the opportunity to learn something new because you never know when it might become useful.
Karina: Well, that is such a great advice, and I know that so many people who are watching this are really gonna benefit for that. So thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me...
Adam: It’s been a pleasure.
Karina: Really fascinating hearing about all you had to say and... Yeah, thank you so much.
Adam: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.
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