Interview with Deborah M. Gordon

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Deborah M. Gordon standing next to the Ant Man mask. (© Deborah M. Gordon)


Deborah M Gordon received her PhD in zoology from Duke University in 1983 and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, Oxford and the University of London. In 1991, she started at Stanford University and is now Professor in the Department of Biology at Stanford. She is interested in many aspects of ant colony behavior, for example how colonies work without central control and how arboreal ant trail networks function. In this interview, we talk about her career, her TED talks, and ants in the kitchen.


An Interview compiled by Patrick Krapf


MNB: Thank you so much for giving us an interview. Let’s start with something easy. Could you tell us a little bit about how you started working with ants?

DMG: I started working with ants because I was very interested in the history of developmental biology – especially whether it is possible to understand the development of an embryo by looking at each cell as independent of the others or whether instead we have to understand the interactions amon cells. An embryo, like an ant colony, works without any central control, and as development continues, different cells take on different roles. I was interested in finding a system that works without central control but where it is possible to see everything. I chose ant colonies, for which we have the same questions that we do about embryos, that is, how it is that the system can work when no ant understands what needs to been done.


MNB: Oh, wow. This is a long way. Speaking of ways, you recently came back from a field trip. If I may ask, where have you been, and how was it?

DMG: It was great. I was at the West coast of Mexico observing arboreal turtle ants, Cephalotes goniodontus, in the tropical dry forest. It’s a beautiful place, and the ants are amazing! They make a network of trails within the network of vegetation. Basically, when they come to a junction where there is more than one stem they could travel on, they tend to go in the one that has the most pheromone left by the ants that passed there before. It’s a polydomous species. One function of their trails is just to keep the nests connected and another is to make new trails off to food resources that are more temporary. These ants have nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and they don’t need to collect protein; they seem to be collecting sources of nitrogen and carbohydrates, for example nectar and lichen. I am trying to understand how they search and explore and how they maintain these trails. I was there a week after the first rain. It’s a deciduous forest, and when it rains, the leaves suddenly come out very quickly, growing at a rate of a centimetre per day. I could see that from day to day, the growth of the leaves creates new junctions for the ants to walk across and also weighs down the branches, which changes the junctions as well. I am working with computer scientists Saket Navlakha and a grad student Arjun Chandrasekhar from the University of California San Diego. Arjun came to Mexico this time – as a computer scientist, he had no experience observing ants and it was fun to see him realize how real ants are different from the ones in his simulations.


Deborah M. Gordon observing turtle ants in Mexico. (© Deborah M. Gordon)


MNB: Oh, wow. Could you tell us a little bit about this recent research?

DMG: We mapped, not just the paths the ants were taking, but the possible other junctions around them that the ants don’t take, to understand how they choose which edges they take.


MNB: And do you watch them individually or do you film them? Or how do you work?

DMG: Sometimes we film them but other times we observe and measure directly, for example the rate at which ants pass a junction, which corresponds to the rate at which they lay trail pheromone. . We’ve done experiments in which we cut the vegetation to see how they repair the paths when there was a break or rupture. This time we tracked natural ruptures, when the growth of the vegetation created gaps that ants could not cross. The ants use a process for creating trail networks which is very flexible to deal with the changes in the vegetation.


MNB: You still seem so intrigued by your work. May I ask what is your motivation for doing ant research?

DMG: Ants help us understand how a system can work without a central control and how simple local interactions add up to create dynamics that operate over time to allow the colony to grow and reproduce and adjust to changing conditions.


MNB: As you have been on a field trip recently, but also in more general terms, have there been any obstacles you had to overcome in your research?

DMG: I think to do research means being open to being wrong. You watch and try to understand what is going on, and then you do experiments and observations to see if you are wrong. In research, if you count on getting the right answer and figuring it all out right away, you will be disappointed. I’ve learned over time that I see what I can find out in each step, knowing that after this step, there will be a further one. I can even enjoy being wrong because that opens up new questions.


MNB: Well put. During your research, have there been any special moments?

DMG: I always love when the ants surprise me, when they do something I did not expect. Sometimes it feels like the ants suddenly show me what they are doing. And that is really fun.


MNB: Who or what inspired you to become a myrmecologist?

DMG: I did not expect to pursue a career in studying ants. When I went to graduate school, I expected to work on animal behaviour. I got into reading about developmental biology, and my dissertation advisor, John Gregg was a developmental biologist. He gave me lots of books on different topics, and it was through thinking about developmental biology that I started to work on ants. So it was a lucky accident that I started working on ants.


MNB: Is there one thing you wish everybody knew about ants?

DMG: It’s very difficult for people to understand that the ant doesn’t have a global sense of its goals, or how what it is doing will contribute to the colony, because we are so used to attributing intention and purpose to each other. In the stories that people tell about ants, almost always the ant is attempting or intending to do something for some larger purpose. It’s very hard to let go of that.


MNB: I think you mentioned this in your second TED talk. Talking about TED talks, how was this experience, giving a TED talk, actually giving two TED talks?

DMG: The first TED talk was much easier because it was right at the beginning of the time when YouTube was introduced, and so I did not think of myself giving a talk that many people would watch later, I just thought of it as a talk I was giving to the people in the audience. By the second time, TED talks had changed. A basic difference from other talks I’ve given is that it is not set up for the speaker to look at their slides. Like most academics, I am used to looking at the slides as I talk, using the slides to remember what I need to say. At TED, instead of the slides you are looking at bright lights and a big timer with the seconds ticking down.


MNB: You seemed quite calm though.

DMG: Oh, well, thank you (laughing). It is a style of speaking that academics are actually not well trained to do.


MNB: Slightly different topic. Do you have a favourite morphological structure?

DMG: That is an interesting question. When I look at the ants under the microscope, there is a huge range of amazing shapes and structures whose function I don’t really see when I am watching ants. It makes me aware that in the world of the ants, there must be a lot of things going on that we just don’t see because we look from too far away. Cephalotes have flat heads that they use to plug up the nest entrance, although C. goniodontus does not seem to do that very much. When Cephalotes goniodontus foragers return to the nest, they stand outside the nest, which is on a tree (they nest in the tunnels made by beetles in dead wood). The other ants seem to antennate or maybe even lick the heads of the foragers that come back. With Patrick Abbot, we looked closely at the heads with SEM. They have lots of little pits in the head. I wonder if the foragers might collect something in those pits and other ants might use that odor of a food source.


MNB: Is there any particular situation in which you have a crucial idea for solving a problem?

DMG: Mostly I get ideas when I am watching ants. When I am collecting data, counting something, doing observations that have some routine, – that is when I am the most receptive to see something new. I am watching in a structured way, but I still have the attention to see other things the ants are doing.


MNB: What do you think are the main differences between research today and when you started?

DMG: I guess I am more comfortable with accepting that I might not get the answer right away.


MNB: The higher the career level, the fewer women there are. What do you think is important to reach gender equality?

DMG: Mostly more women, until eventually it becomes clear that how a person does research does not depend on gender. I hope that there is positive feedback: the more women there are, the more comfortable it is for the next ones.


MNB: Do you have any suggestion for myrmecological newbies?

DMG: I think it’s great to work on ants, because almost anything you do on ants has not been done before. It is very different from many other fields in that way. I recently wrote a review for Annual Reviews in Entomology, and I tried to read everything I could on collective behaviour in ants. I was very struck with how few ant species have been studied. Those that have been studied the most are the ones that are easy to keep in the lab, which also tend to be the ones that are invasive because they tolerate a range of conditions. Of about 14000 species of ants, maybe 50 of them have been studied at all and maybe ten of them have been studied a lot. This leaves about 13900 species for which we know almost nothing about their behavior and ecology. The more we learn about ants, the more diversity we see.


Turtle ants view of researchers. (© Deborah M. Gordon)


MNB: What do you think will be hot topics in ant research in the next five to ten years?

DMG: Ants are a great way to approach more general questions about collective behaviour. We can use what we are learning about the ecology of different ant species to ask questions about other systems and the diversity of collective behaviour. We can also use ants to ask questions about environmental change: extinction, fragmentation, and climate change. These questions are going to preoccupy ecologists in the next five to ten years and beyond.


MNB: Is there one question which you are asked often when people hear you work with ants?

DMG: Yes, everybody always asks me how to get rid of the ants in their kitchen. I live in northern California where the Argentine ant comes into houses twice a year , at the end of the dry season and during the peak of the rainy season. I try to use every opportunity to say that pesticide is useless against Argentine ants; regardless of what people will do, the ants will leave the house when conditions get better.


MNB: So you don’t protect your kitchen against ants?

DMG: I don’t like when they come in my kitchen. You can’t really prevent it, but I try to block the places where they are coming in, and to keep surfaces very clean. Like everybody else I feel that ants don’t belong in my kitchen counter, but I also know that there is not much that I can do about it. When my kids were small we did some interesting research in the kitchen and bathroom, up on stepladders counting ants, but mostly I try to keep them out.


MNB: Now, some brief questions. What is your favourite ant?

DMG: That is difficult. I guess I’d have to say the ants that I worked with the most, the turtle ants and the harvester ants, because I know them so well, but there are lots of ants that I think are great.


MNB: In another life, if you could be an ant, what ant species would that be?

DMG: I don’t want to be an ant, it seems really boring (laughing).


MNB: What is the book on your bedside table?

DMG: “The Comedians” by Graham Greene.


MNB: Watching sports or doing sports?

DMG: I don’t watch sports much, but I ride horses.


MNB: Listening to music or playing an instrument?

DMG: I used to play, but I haven’t done that in a long time. I listen to music all the time.


MNB: Do you enjoy the evening or the morning?

DMG: Morning.


MNB: Tea or coffee?

DMG: I can’t drink coffee, because I am very sensitive to caffeine, but I envy everybody who drinks coffee.


MNB: Habit or change, what do you prefer?

DMG: Well, change is always good, but some habit is necessary.


MNB: Cooking yourself or going out having dinner?

DMG: All of those.


MNB: Aspirator or forceps?

DMG: I don’t like aspirators; I actually prefer to pick up ants with my hands whenever I can. I am much faster with my hands than with the forceps. That depends on the species though. Turtle ants are really hard to collect, they flatten themselves on the branch and it is very hard to get them with an aspirator. They also jump off when they see you coming. For harvester ants, it easier to pick them up, wearing gloves because they sting, and in the desert you breathe in a lot of dust with the aspirator. When we emark them we use forceps.


MNB: Nest densities or pitfall traps, what do you prefer?

DMG: We use pitfall traps, but it doesn’t make sense to me to rely on pitfall traps because there are some ants that just won’t go in. In order to learn from pitfall trap data, you have to have some other measures as well.


MNB: Field work or lab?

DMG: Field work.


MNB: Pin or ethanol?

DMG: I don’t like either.


MNB: Paper printed out or reading on the laptop?

DMG: I usually read a pdf on the computer, but if it’s a complicated paper and I need to think about it and look at different parts back and forth, I print it out.


MNB: Journals financed by the author (open access) or by the reader (subscription based). What do you prefer?

DMG: I think that we need to move to open access. I like the model of PLoS One: we publish work because it is good science. The different rankings of different journals come from an earlier time, when people actually looked at separate physical journals. Ideally, we would publish everything that is good science, and it would all be open access, and we wouldn’t worry about different journals any more.


MNB: Kin selection or group selection?

DMG: There is a gradient or a spectrum, and we have put too much energy in worrying about this contrast; it is time to move on.


MNB: Do you prefer monodomy or supercoloniality?

DMG: I am interested in both.


MNB: Do you prefer the workers or the queens in an ant colony?

DMG: Usually the workers are much more interesting to me.


MNB: So, those were all my questions. Thank you again so much for this great interview.

DMG: Thank you.


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