Exemplars 10

To Ant Colonies and Beyond

College of Arts and Sciences

Adam Kay on his experience as a researcher looking for more than answers to scientific problems.

My name is Adam Kay and I am an associate professor in the biology department at the University of St. Thomas. My research focuses on the evolutionary ecology and behavior of ants. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wondered about the ultimate motivation underlying behavior. I was a chemistry and religious studies double major as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina because I liked scientific analysis of concrete problems, but I also sought deeper meaning.

I found the perfect blend of scientific rigor and ultimate meaning when I discovered the field of evolutionary ecology by reading “Sociobiology” by the Biologist E.O. Wilson. In the book, Wilson compares social behavior across a variety of taxa–from colonial microorganisms to humans. Wilson’s work convinced me that ants were an ideal system for studying behavior. He described an ant colony using the metaphor of a “factory-fortress” that had to use environmental resources efficiently in the face of external threats to maximize the production of descendants. The optimal design for the factory-fortress should depend on the foods that are available and the threats it faces. My research explores how ants combine the resources that they obtain from disparate nutritional sources (such as nectar and insect prey) to meet their demands for growth, reproduction, and activity.

Our current project, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, assesses how the balance of different resources affects the ecology of ants that inhabit the soil and leaf litter in a lowland tropical rainforest of Panama. Our field work is at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, which is on the Barro Colorado Island National Monument in the Panama Canal Zone. It consists of small- and large-scale resource manipulations that allow us to test whether inputs of particular nutrients predictably change the structure and composition of litter ant communities. This work is important for a couple of reasons. First, ants are a key part of the decomposer food web, so understanding how resources influence ant success improves our ability to predict how human-related phenomenon will affect the cycling of nutrients in tropical forests. Second, leaf litter ants are incredibly diverse, so studying these communities helps us better understand the factors that maintain or threaten biodiversity in the tropics.

Undergraduate students play an important role in all aspects of my research. Since starting at the University of St. Thomas in 2004, I’ve learned how valuable and fulfilling it is to give undergraduate students the opportunity to work collaboratively on research projects that influence the scientific community. Research experiences give students a thrill when they discover something new. As a result, the processes of knowledge- and skill-acquisition become much more open-ended than in the classroom; research requires students to take initiative in order to find the answers to problems that they are eager to solve.   

I’ve found that students become particularly enthusiastic when they realize that their project will likely have an impact on the field. This enthusiasm fuels the development of students as researchers, but it also has indirect benefits on the entire program as the culture of discovery takes hold. I have been able to work with several dynamic and engaging students at St. Thomas who have presented their findings at national and international meetings and who have co-written research publications with me, and it has been very gratifying. The most fascinating insight I have gleaned from my research has been the realization that the economy of nature can give me so much insight into the meaning of my own life.

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Adam Kay on his experience as a researcher looking for more than answers to scientific problems.