Doing an ant PhD: Nokuthula Mbanyana-Nhleko

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Nokuthula Mbanyana-Nhleko giving a behind-the-scenes tour in the entomology dry-collection at Iziko Museums of South Africa (© Nigel Pamplin – Iziko Museums of South Africa)

My name is Nokuthula Mbanyana-Nhleko. I am a curator at Iziko Museums of South Africa in the Entomology Department and also registered for a PhD with Stellenbosch University. I grew up in the rural areas of Eastern Cape (Mount Frere), South Africa. As a young girl, I was always fascinated by nature in general, especially insects, spiders, and birds. Growing up in the village, on weekends we used to go and collect wood from the nearby forests for making fire. It was not the only thing that we would do in the forest. Others would go swimming, but since I was not a good swimmer, I would sit close to the river with other friends who also did not feel like swimming. I enjoyed watching birds and insects foraging, and some carrying food. Sometimes we would collect different types of insects and also chase butterflies. We would collect them and compare the number of insects that we had collected. Little did I know that I would still be doing that in my adulthood (laughing)! I was fascinated by their remarkable intelligence and spiders’ ability to create webs. I always wondered how ants were communicating with each other to form a line from their nest to the food point.
I completed my Bachelor‘s degree at Walter Sisulu University (Eastern Cape, South Africa). I then moved to Cape Town to look for a job as I couldn’t continue with my studies at that time due to financial constraints. I got a job at Iziko Museums of South Africa as a Data Capturer in the Entomology Department. It was a six months contract after which I got another job within the department as an Assistant Curator, focusing on ant curation and ant taxonomy. I was mentored by Dr. Hamish Robertson. He was the one who evoked my interest and love for ants. I then enrolled with Stellenbosch University for an Honours programme and then a Master’s degree, while working full time at the Museum. Both my Honours and Masters projects focused on the Tetramorium solidum-group. Dr. Simon van Noort, a Curator of Entomology at Iziko Museums of South Africa and who is also one of my PhD supervisors, and Dr. Hamish Robertson (who is now retired) contributed immensely to my career growth.

MNB: What is the topic of your PhD thesis?
NM: In my PhD, I focus on the biogeographical history of the southern African ant genus Ocymyrmex. Species within this group are more diverse in the arid regions of southern Africa compared to other tropical and subtropical parts of the continent. These ants show unique adaptations to the extreme thermal niches of these regions. Some of the species in this group can forage at ground temperatures as high as 56ºC when most insects and other arthropods are unable to survive. This study is also aiming to assess species diversity within the ant genus Ocymyrmex by evaluating the taxonomy of these ants using both morphology and molecular data. I am also trying to assess the physiological traits such as thermal tolerance and desiccation resistance that enable Ocymyrmex ants to inhabit these dry, warm areas. This project is supervised by Prof. Theresa Wossler (Stellenbosch University), Dr. Simon van Noort (Iziko Museums of South Africa), Dr. Jaco Le Roux (Macquarie University), and Dr. Sean Brady (Smithsonian Institution).

An Ocymyrmex ant (also commonly known as hotrod ants) (© Hamish Robertson)

MNB: In which year of your PhD studies are you now?
NM: I am in the last phase of my PhD. I was supposed to submit my thesis in November 2020 but the national lockdown has stalled my progress and therefore my PhD had to be extended by a couple of months.

MNB: Why ants?
NM: (Laughing!) I have received this question a couple of times, especially from my friends, whom I grew up with, and from students as well. I remember the other time I was giving a talk to high school students Learners on a Career’s Day. One student asked me: “Nokuthula, what was your parents’ reaction when you told them that you were going to University to study ants”. I laughed and then explained to them that when I started my undergraduate degree, I had no idea that I would be working on ants. I wanted to do a Natural Science degree, hence I registered for a Bachelor of Science degree with Zoology and Botany. One of the many reasons I enjoy working with ants is that they are almost everywhere and it is easy to collect them. They are so tiny and yet they play a huge role in the ecosystem functioning.

MNB: How do you feel about fieldwork?
NM: Fieldwork is one of the many things I enjoy most about my career. I get to be away from city life and be in touch with nature. It’s always exciting for me to learn about insects’ behavior in their natural environment.

Nokuthula Mbanyana-Nhleko doing fieldwork in Cederberg Wilderness Area (© Simon van Noort – Iziko Mueums of South Africa)

MNB: Do you know and like to identify ants using a key?
NM: As part of my job in the Museum, I identify ants to species level (where possible). This task can be intimidating and frustrating at times, especially if keys are ambiguous. Nevertheless, I enjoy keying out a specimen, it’s like playing scrabble.

MNB: I see! And how do you feel about working in the wet lab, if you do any?
NM: Most of my work is based in the dry collection, as I use dry-pinned specimens for identification, imaging, and measuring morphological characters.

Ocymyrmex cavatodorsatus © Nokuthula Mbanyana-Nhleko

MNB: And have you been involved in any of the -omics approaches, and what was your experience?
NM: Yes; During my first year of PhD, I attended a 10-week fellowship program at the Smithsonian Museum National Museum of Natural History. The purpose of my visit was to learn more about the advanced phylogenomic methods (ultraconserved elements, UCEs) that are used at the Laboratories of Analytical Biology (LAB) at the Smithsonian Museum. This method helps to generate very robust phylogenies that can resolve challenging species’ delimitations that sometimes remain unresolved by Sanger sequencing data sets. This technique also works well with old, pinned museum material and uses non-destructive DNA extraction, which leaves the specimen in a great condition. We are using phylogenomic methods based on ultraconserved elements for my PhD study to understand the evolutionary relationships within Ocymyrmex species.

MNB: Oh wow, sounds really interesting! Now a slight change in topic: Did you acquire your statistics knowledge in university courses, from your supervisor, or on your own?
NM: My statistics knowledge is not very strong.I have acquired the basic knowledge that I have from my lab mates and my colleagues.

MNB: What is the ideal frequency of meeting your supervisor for discussing your research from your point of view: daily, weekly, monthly?
NM: I think this depends on which PhD phase you are in; at the beginning of a PhD, weekly meetings are necessary. One of my supervisors is also based at the Museum, so he is always available when I need to discuss any ideas or concerns regarding my project.

MNB: And 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?
NM: I first sit and think about it and then read a few papers to see if anyone has ever done anything similar to that, and then discuss it with my supervisors.

MNB: And tying to this: How many papers do you read in an average week?
NM: I usually read about 3 to 4 papers per week.

MNB: And in an ideal world, is the working group you belong to small or large?
NM: It is a perfect size, not too big and not too small.

MNB: Now regarding fieldwork: Ideally, is your uni close to your fieldwork site or in an urban area?
NM: My university is in an urban area. We normally drive about 600 to 1000 km to my sampling sites, as the group of ants that I am studying for my PhD is mainly distributed in the desert and semi-desert regions.

MNB: Wow, that is really far away. So packing all the equipment for fieldwork will take some thinking and time, I guess?
NM: Yes, planning and packing are the main keys for our trips. We sometimes spend a couple of weeks in the field so we have to ensure that we are well equipped before heading to the field.

MNB: Have you profited more from attending conferences with narrower or with a broader scope?
NM: I have benefitted from both. I attended a conference last year which had a broader scope and it was really interesting to learn about the research work that has been done from other fields.

MNB: And what is most relevant to you at a conference: attending talks, giving a talk, meeting senior scientists, meeting other students?
NM: I enjoy attending talks and meeting senior scientists. 

MNB: Did you ever participate in a science slam and if so, what was your experience?
NM: No, I have not but I hope to participate one day.

MNB: Do you explain the work of your PhD project to your kids?
NM: Yes, my kids have developed an interest in ants and insects in general. When my 7-year old daughter finds an ant in our house or our backyard, she usually says “Mom your babies (ants) are here for you, please come and collect them” (Laughing!)

MNB: Do your kids ever accompany you when you’re working, for example in the field?
NM: Not yet, but I am hoping that one day they will join me in the field. I am sure they would be very excited to do so.

MNB: Do you think you are slower in your PhD project because you have kids or are you, on the contrary, possibly even faster because you know especially well you have to be efficient in using your time?
NM: I don’t think they have influenced my progress much, but I find it overwhelming at times to juggle between parenting, my full-time job, and my PhD; as all these three spheres of my life need my attention, energy, and time.

MNB: I can only imagine how difficult this is. So you probably developed many skills for efficiency?
NM: It’s not easy and I don’t always get it right but I do my best to manage my time effectively and ensure that family time happens.

MNB: What do you think are the advantages of first having kids and then starting a PhD project?
NM: From my point of view,I do not see any advantages. If I were to start again, I would finish my PhD first and then start a family.

MNB: If you would get 100,000 Dollars to spend on your research project, what would you do with it?
NM: I would conduct more ant surveys in most African countries, as some of them have been under-sampled, especially Botswana, which I believe it is one of the hotspots for Ocymyrmex and other arid ant species. I would also sequence more samples, as I am intending to revise the taxonomic status of many ant groups.  

MNB: Seems like a great idea! And what helps you best in your spare time to relax from work?
NM: Jogging, cooking, and spending quality time with my family.

MNB: How do you celebrate successes like getting a paper accepted, a proposal granted, or the like?
NM: I first scream and giggle (on my own); and then share the news with my colleagues and family.

MNB: What is your personal trick to get over periods of low(er) motivation?
NM: It always helps me to cry it out and sleep. I then revisit the issue the next day or once I am at peace.

MNB: And what do you do to get over frustration about what you consider as unfair criticism by a reviewer?
NM: Fortunately I haven’t been in that situation so far. 

MNB: What is the one thing you would do differently when starting your PhD thesis again?
NM: I would exclude some of the experiments that I did for my study. As I have mentioned, we usually drove 600-1000 km to my study sites so it has always been a nightmare to bring back live ants to the lab for experiments.

MNB: Would you like to stay in science?
NM: Yes, without a doubt! This is where I belong.

MNB: If you will be supervising PhD students yourself, what will be the most important thing you will expect from your students?
NM: Dedication, patience, and perseverance.My PhD taught me that things do not always work as the initial plan, patience is very important.

MNB: And what will be the most important thing you will want to take care of in supervising?
NM: My journey has been challenging and emotionally draining at times. I have shed tears along the way, so I would try to be available as much as possible and be supportive of my students.

Nokuthula Mbanyana-Nhleko during her 10 week fellowship program at the National Museum of Natural History (© Eugenia Okonski – National Museum of Natural History)

MNB: Original article or review article?
NM: Original article.

MNB: Reading or writing?
NM: Writing.

MNB: Writing or reviewing?
NM: Writing.

MNB: Reviewing or considering criticism by someone else?
NM: Reviewing.

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

MNB: Informative or sexy paper title?
NM: Informative title.

MNB: Table or figure?
NM: Figure.

MNB: Web of Science or Google Scholar?
NM: Google Scholar.

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

MNB: Windows, OS, or Linux?
NM: Windows.

MNB: Command-line or graphical-user interface?
NM: Command-line.

MNB: Mouse or touchpad?
NM: Touchpad.

MNB: Facebook or Twitter?
NM: Twitter.

MNB: Bus or bike?
NM: Bus (I can’t ride a bike :-)).

MNB: Breakfast or dinner?
NM: Dinner.

MNB: Sun or rain?
NM: Rain.

MNB: Diploid or haploid?
NM: Diploid.

MNB: Sting or acid?
NM: Acid.

MNB: Social parasite or host?
NM: Host.

MNB: Your favourite ant paper?

NM: It’s difficult to choose one; can I at least choose two?
Blaimer, B.B., Ward, P.S., Schultz, T.R., Fisher, B.L., & Brady, S.G. 2018. Paleotropical Diversification Dominates the Evolution of the Hyperdiverse Ant Tribe Crematogastrini (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). – Insect Systematics and Diversity 2:3; https://doi.org/10.1093/isd/ixy013.
Menzel, F., Blaimer, B.B., Schmitt, T. 2017. How do cuticular hydrocarbons evolve? Physiological constraints and climatic and biotic selection pressures act on a complex functional trait. – Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 284: 20161727. doi:10.1098/rspb.2016.1727

MNB: Your favourite ant?
NM: Definitely Ocymyrmex species. There is just something magical about these ants. I get so excited every time I see them in the field. It’s always fulfilling to dig up their nests and find the entire colony (including brood and alates).

MNB: …and if in another life you would be an ant, what ant would that be?
NM: I would definitely be one ofOcymyrmex species so that I could stand all the harsh conditions :-).

MNB: In a future interview, whom (researcher, PostDoc fellow, or PhD student) would you like to see featured?
NM: Peter Hawkes, a researcher (peter.hawkes@afribugs)

Nokuthula Mbanyana-Nhleko in the field. (© Nokuthula Mbanyana-Nhleko)
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