Doing an ant Phd: Jonathan R. Morris

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Jonathan R. Morris (© Sarah K. Morris)

Jonathan Richard Morris is a 31-year-old PhD student in the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan. He grew up in the state of Florida in the USA and studied environmental science at the University of Florida for his bachelor’s degree, where he also got involved in museum ornithology. Before graduating, he studied abroad with the Organization for Tropical Studies in Costa Rica and fell in love with ecology and the tropics. Soon after, he pursued several opportunities to participate in fieldwork in Latin America before starting his master’s with Ivette Perfecto and John Vandermeer at the University of Michigan. For the past few years, he has continued this research as an associate in Dr. Perfecto’s lab, studying the relationship between biodiversity and biological control in coffee agroecosystems. Most of his work thus far has focused on the role of ants as natural predators of coffee pests. He will continue this work as he begins his PhD this fall.


An Interview compiled by Patrick Krapf


MNB: What is the topic of your PhD thesis?

JRM: Ants are incredibly diverse in tropical agroecosystems. Many species are also important consumers and ecosystem engineers. I am interested in how ants, along with other predators, interact in these systems and how these interactions relate to the overall functioning of biological pest control. For my PhD, I plan on scaling up from the interactions I have been working on between just a few populations and looking more holistically at the community level. I hope to use mathematical models and ecological network theory to test questions about predator diversity, interaction complexity, biocontrol function, and agricultural management. I will ground this work in field-based observations to help parametrize my models and to test model results against empirical data.


MNB: In which year of your PhD studies are you now?

JRM: I will be starting my PhD this September.


MNB: Why ants?

JRM: When I began my master’s graduate work, I was interested in studying biodiversity in agroecosystems. My advisor, Ivette Perfecto, works in coffee agroecosystems in Mexico where ants are especially diverse and ecologically important. They are also a lot easier to experiment on than birds or other predators.  So the decision to work with ants sort of made itself.


MNB: How do you feel about field work?

JRM: Fieldwork is the reason I am a biologist. I was fortunate enough to have my first experience doing scientific research in the rainforests of Costa Rica. From that moment on, I knew I wanted to spend my life studying nature. What better way to study it than immersing yourself in it?


Azteca sericeasur attacks the coffee berry borer, the worst insect pest of coffee around the world. (© Jonathan Morris)


MNB: … about identifying ants using a key?

JRM: This is not something I’ve actually done a lot. Because of the hard work of former students and colleagues in our research group, most of the ants at our field site are already fairly well known. I am grateful for their efforts.


MNB: … working in the wet lab?

JRM: I prefer the field or my computer.


MNB: Have you been involved in any of the -omics approaches, and what was your experience?

JRM: Not a lot. Most of my work is field based or theory based.


MNB: Did you acquire your statistics knowledge in university courses, from your supervisor, or on your own?

JRM: My statistics knowledge comes from a mix of self-education, some coursework, and a lot of help from other academics. I have benefited tremendously from the collective knowledge of my peers.


MNB: What is the ideal frequency of meeting your supervisor for discussing your research from your point of view: daily, weekly, monthly?

JRM: Weekly or biweekly. I think it’s important to keep up a regular interaction with your advisors to keep yourself pointing in the right direction and to help maintain your focus, but students should also be free to work and develop their ideas independently.


MNB: If you have a great idea, how do you find out if it’s really great: sitting down and thinking, discussing with your supervisor, discussing with colleagues from the group, discussing with someone not into science?

JRM: If I think I have an interesting idea, I’m usually too excited to keep it to myself, so I quickly share it with others. Our lab group has a very organic dynamic where we spend a lot of time socializing outside of the lab. This helps to foster open exchange and cultivates good ideas but also, fortunately, filters out a lot of bad ones.


MNB: How many papers do you read in an average week?

JRM: It really depends on the week. If I’m working on a deadline for something, then usually not too many, but If I’m thinking a lot about a new idea I’m usually immersed in the literature.


MNB: In an ideal world, is the working group you belong to small or large?

JRM: As long as there are people around to share ideas with, I’m pretty happy, but definitely not too small.


MNB: And ideally, is your uni close to your field-work site or in an urban area?

JRM: This doesn’t really matter too much to me. I love the opportunity to travel to do field work internationally, but it’s also efficient to work close to home.


MNB: Have you benefited more from attending conferences with narrower or with broader scope?

JRM: At this point in my career, I think broader is better. This helps me connect my research to the bigger ideas in ecology.


MNB: What is most relevant to you at a conference: attending talks, giving a talk, meeting senior scientists, meeting other students?

JRM: Attending talks and meeting other academics. I like giving talks, but I feel like I get a lot more from my interactions with others.


MNB: Did you ever participate in a science slam and if so, what was your experience?

JRM: I don’t think so, but it sounds cool.


MNB: If you would get 100,000 Dollar to spend for your research project, what would you do with it?

JRM: Buy better insect tents?


MNB: What helps you best in your spare time to relax from work?

JRM: Being outdoors, exercise, and watching telenovelas.


MNB: How do you celebrate successes like getting a paper accepted, a proposal granted, or the like?

JRM: Usually, I go out for a drink with my lab group.


MNB: What is your personal trick to get over periods of low(er) motivation?

JRM: Running.


MNB: What do you do to get over frustration about what you consider as unfair criticism by a reviewer?

JRM: I usually complain to my peers, cool off for a few days, and then realize that most of the criticism was actually very helpful and constructive.


MNB: Would you like to stay in science?

JRM: Definitely. I love research, and I love to teach. Academia is a natural fit.


MNB: If you will be supervising PhD students yourself, what will be the most important thing you will expect from your students?

JRM: Curiosity, creativity, and a passion to develop their own ideas.


Cephalotes basalis ants cross a string used in an experiment to test the importance of vegetation connectivity for ant mobility and associated pest control services in coffee. (© Jonathan Morris)


MNB: Original article or review article?

JRM: I prefer writing original articles, but I often prefer reading review articles. You usually get a lot more bang for your buck.


MNB: Reading or writing?

JRM: Reading is way easier.


MNB: Writing or reviewing?

JRM: Both give their own joys. Depends on my mood.


MNB: Reviewing or considering criticism by someone else?

JRM: Definitely reviewing.


MNB: The first or last 5% of time you spend with writing a manuscript?

JRM: Both are difficult.


MNB: Informative or sexy paper title?

JRM: It takes real creativity to do both.


MNB: Table or figure?

JRM: I’m very visual, so I have a particular fondness for making figures.


MNB: Web of Science or Google Scholar?

JRM: Google Scholar.


MNB: Journals financed by the author (open access) or the reader (subscription)?

JRM: In my view, the point of doing science is to enhance society’s collective understanding of the way the world works. If no one outside of elite academic institutions can read your work, then are you really achieving that goal? For this reason, I prefer open access journals, although the cost of many of these is often exorbitant for a single author to pay. I believe academic journals should be subsidized with public money to reduce publishing costs and that more public research funding should be allocated to cover the cost of open access publication. Ideally, publishing would be done by non-profit entities that are part of the public good to maintain low costs and accessibility for everyone.


MNB: Windows, OS, or Linux?



MNB: Command-line or graphical-user interface?

JRM: Whichever is easiest for the required task.


MNB: Bus or bike?

JRM: Bike.


MNB: Breakfast or dinner?

JRM: Breakfast.


MNB: Sun or rain?

JRM: Sun.


MNB: Social parasite or host?

JRM: Is this metaphorical?


MNB: Your favourite ant paper?

JRM: Philpott, S. M., Pardee, G. L., & Gonthier, D. J. 2012: Cryptic biodiversity effects: importance of functional redundancy revealed through addition of food web complexity. – Ecology 93: 992-1001.

This paper explores fascinating biodiversity effects that result from an ant-parasitoid interaction.


MNB: Your favourite ant?

JRM: Cephalotes basalis


MNB: …and if in another life you would be an ant, what ant would that be?

JRM: Hmm, probably one of the Dolichoderus herdsman ants. I like cultivating things and if I had to choose, I’d prefer mutualist interactions as opposed to parasitism or predation.


MNB: Thank you for this interview!






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