Felicity Muth decided to pursue her postdoctoral research at the College of Science for one reason - the bees. More specifically, the bees being studied in Anne Leonard's Lab. Now, 4 and a half years later, Muth and Leonard have made strides in the field of entomology and bee cognition. The two sat down together to talk about their research, what's next, and the importance of breaking the stereotype of the scientist.
Felicity: So, Annie, how did you first get interested in becoming a scientist?
Anne: Going back to my childhood, I never really liked insects or spiders. In fact, I spent a whole lot of my early life running away from them.
F: Wow, really?
A: Yeah, I really was an anti-insect and anti-spider person. But when I was young, my parents would only let me watch PBS, which I hated, and I watched so many nature documentaries that I decided that I wanted to work with animals one day. When I got to college, I learned more about insects and realized they were actually really cool, and here I am, an insect researcher.
F: I feel like I was the opposite. I feel like I was that weird child who had all the insect friends and spent all my time outside playing with insects and had no idea it could turn into a career one day.
A: So why bees, because you used to work on birds, right?
F: Yes, for my PhD I worked on birds, and then towards the end of my PhD I had a whole lot of questions that I wanted to ask, and I had seen a lot of people talk about their research with bees. It seemed like all of the questions I wanted to ask, and that I was asking with birds, could also be asked really readily with bees. I think that people often don't realize quite how complex the cognition is of insects like bees. And there's a lot of practical things to do working with insects that just makes it easier to work within a lab. With birds, I always had some worries about how they were doing in the lab environment. I know it varies from species to species, of course, but I think that bees do really well behaving in a lab environment. And, yeah, I haven't really looked back. I absolutely love working with bees.
A: Were you surprised when you first started working with bees about their cognition and mental abilities?
F: It's kind of hard to remember those things. I think probably not because I was reading all these books about insects from such a young age that it wasn't a total surprise to me. Did you have a moment where you were surprised?
A: I shouldn't have been surprised, but the first time I trained a bee on a color learning task, I remember being pretty amazed. I'd read a lot about bee learning, but to see it happen before my eyes was pretty amazing. Especially when you get to test their long-term memories, when you realize this little bee still remembers something that it learned a week ago, it's pretty amazing.
F: You're right, that is an exciting moment.
A: So, I know we both love bees, but if you were given unlimited resources, what other animal would you study, or would you just stick with bees?
F: Well I find alien life very interesting...
F: But really, I think that when it comes to cognition, which is the thing that I'm really interested in, I think we know a lot more from vertebrates than we do invertebrates. There are so many insects, for example, out there and I bet some of them have got some really interesting cognitive abilities and we just don't know. The fact that we don't even know all of the insects that are out there, I think that would be really interesting to look into.
A: You've been working with bees now for about four or five years, what are some of your more current projects?
F: For the past year or so, I've been funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and also a L'Oreal For Women in Science Fellowship looking at how some of the pesticides that are used widely here in the states might be affecting bumblebee cognition. These pesticides, neonicotinoids, are the ones we use most widely on our crops and even though bees obviously aren't the target of these pesticides, they do affect bees. So, what I'm trying to do is understand if and how these pesticides might be affecting the behavior of these bees. I know this is something you just recently got a grant from the USDA to study, right?
A: That's right. Dennis Mathew, who's in biology, and I just got a three-year grant to study the effects of these neonic pesticides and how they interact with nutritional state to impact bee health and behavior. We'll be starting that research up this year. We'll be bringing in some new graduate students, maybe a post-doc, so the lab group will be growing quite a bit with many of us working on pesticides and bees which I think is a really important topic.
So, you mentioned the L'Oreal Fellowship. That's a pretty prestigious fellowship! It's sponsored by L'Oreal the major company, as well as the American Association for the Advancement for Science. You got to go to D.C. for an awards ceremony, they sent us sample packs of cosmetic products that we all enjoyed. I got to see some of the experience you've had and I've seen how wonderful the fellowship has been. What have you found most rewarding about that whole experience?
F: I think it's really excellent when companies like them give money to scientists like us, especially because women are under-represented in the sciences so it's nice to see that kind of support. It's been great to have independent funding so I can do the research that I want to do. It's just really nice to see women in science valued and celebrated in our society.
In fact, the topic of women working in the field of science has come up quite often since receiving the grant. What has been your experience as a female scientist working in what is sometimes perceived as a male-dominated field?
A: That's a good question. It's been really positive. I've had great role models in terms of mentors, formal and informal, who never made me feel like I was a "woman in science", they just treated me like a student or like a junior colleague. I think that things are getting a lot better in terms of the more explicit biases. I do think implicit biases are present in science, even in a field that's very gender balanced like biology. I know that in classrooms there's research showing that even very unbiased wonderful professors more often call on male students than female students. We all just have to be aware of those biases and once you are aware of them, I think you can help try and correct them. For example, I try and make sure I'm not using gendered terms in my letters of recommendation and I try and create an environment in lab where people would feel comfortable speaking up if the environment wasn't comfortable for them in some way.
F: I agree. You hear the stories of women in science 30 years ago, and they were up against a lot more than I am today. I think it's good to acknowledge how far we've come, but at the same time not be too complacent. While we may want to just move on and treat men and women the same without thinking so much about it, I think it's good to be aware of the biases that do still exist.
I think one of the main things the L'Oreal grant is trying to do, which I feel is really important, is showing children, young women and young men, that scientists aren't any particular type of person, that anybody can be a scientist who wants to be a scientist.
A: Exactly. We still have a ways to go there in terms of thinking about what a scientist should look like, how old they should be, what their gender should be, what they dress like, et cetera. I would say that when I was first here, people would come to the lab and they would ask if they could speak to the PI. I've had plenty of experiences like that where people's implicit biases didn't recognize me as someone who would be a biology professor maybe because of my age or gender or something else. There are so many different types of people working in science and so many different areas of scientific research. The more we show that diversity the less dominant the stereotyped image of a man in a white lab coat will be.
On the whole, I would say I've felt very supported in this environment here at UNR. Everyone has been very supportive and welcoming here, from the top administration down.
F: Me as well. As an individual, I have to say I've been pretty lucky. I've had three brilliant female mentors and I think that as a whole I've had a really good experience and a good run in science.
A: So, what's next for you then?
F: Well, my position here finishes in about 9 months. I've been applying to jobs and looking for fellowships with the idea that my next step will be being ahead of a lab with my own PhD students hopefully.
A: That's really exciting!
F: Yes, it is exciting. There's always a bit of uncertainty in science, but that's my plan.
The College of Science would like to congratulate both Leonard and Muth on their recent accomplishments. Since this interview, Leonard received a $579,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to fund three years of her research on bumblebees and their reaction with Nevada state wildflowers. Read more about this research here. Felicity Muth accepted a position beginning in August of 2019 as Assistant Professor at the University of Texas - Austin.