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How an “Accidental Entomologist” Connects Disparate Fields to Study Insect Ecology

Manu Saunders and flies at Little Llangothlin Lagoon

Manu Saunders, Ph.D., postdoctoral research fellow at the University of New England, Australia, found it was a good day for flies while surveying insects at Little Llangothlin Lagoon in New South Wales. Saunders studies insect community ecology and ecosystem services, but she says she found a career in entomology “accidentally,” after a planned research project on koalas fell through during her undergraduate studies. (Photo credit: Deborah Bower, Ph.D.)

By Ryan J. Leonard, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: This is the next post in the “Standout ECPs” series contributed by the Entomological Society of America’s Early Career Professionals (ECP) Committee, highlighting outstanding ECPs that are doing great work in the profession. (An ECP is defined as anyone within the first five years of obtaining their terminal degree in their field.) Learn more about the work ECPs are doing within ESA, and read more posts in the Standout ECPs series.

Manu Saunders, Ph.D.

Manu Saunders, Ph.D.

Manu Saunders, Ph.D., is currently a postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Environmental and Rural Science at the University of New England, Australia. Manu was the 2019 recipient of the UNE Dean’s Award for Early Career Research Excellence and the 2015 recipient of the Office of Environment & Heritage/Ecological Society of Australia Award for Outstanding Science Outreach. Learn more about Manu’s work via her blog, Ecology is Not a Dirty Word, or find her on Twitter at @ManuSaunders. Below we ask Manu a few questions about postdoctoral life.

Leonard: What is your favourite aspect about the research you do?

Saunders: Learning mind-blowing things about insects every day. My research focuses on understanding how knowledge of insect diversity and community interactions can inform ecosystem services frameworks that are used for decision-making. Because ecosystem services science is a relatively new discipline, my work often involves connecting knowledge from different disciplines within new frameworks to answer my research questions. We tend to label animals as “pest” or “beneficial” based on the life stage or interactions we’re most familiar with, but the reality is that all animals can contribute costs or benefits depending on the context. Even bees can be pests in some contexts!

There are plenty of knowledge gaps generally in relation to insect ecology, but, on the other hand, there is also a lot of available relevant data and knowledge buried in particular disciplines, many of which haven’t interacted with each other for years. A great example is freshwater and terrestrial ecology. One of the projects I’m currently working on is looking at insects that have life cycles across land and water systems. There are many examples, but, because freshwater ecologists and terrestrial ecologists have largely operated as separate disciplines and considered different life stages of these insects in isolation, there’s very limited understanding of how an insect influences ecosystem function across multiple systems throughout its life cycle.

How did you come to be interested in community ecology and the ecosystem services provided by insects?

I guess I’m an accidental entomologist. I grew up in a rural area, playing outdoors and loving nature, but I never knew that could translate into a science career. At the time, education and cultural norms of scientists were mostly presented as lab coats, technology, and medicine. When I left school, I did a degree in English and worked in corporate communications and various jobs. It wasn’t until my mid-20s that I discovered that ecologist was a real career, so I went back to university to do a degree in environmental science. I think I thought I’d be a park ranger or something; an academic career definitely wasn’t on my horizon.

I discovered the wonders of insects in my honours year, purely by accident—my chosen honours project (on urban koalas) fell through when I was about to start planning field work because my supervisor disappeared without telling me. So, I had to find a new supervisor and new project to complete honours in the few months I had left of the degree. The only feasible available project was evaluating the effectiveness of a tingid bug that had been released in southeast Queensland as a biological control agent of an invasive weed, cat’s claw creeper. That project, and a short summer project I did collating evidence on crop pollinators, allowed me to discover how fascinating insect lives were and also how little we knew about them compared to the larger charismatic animals (which I almost got distracted by!). In particular, I was drawn to the huge knowledge gaps around insect community ecology, how they interact with each other and other organisms, and how many of them are quietly benefiting humans, even though cultural norms tend to label all insects as scary or annoying pests. Life sometimes doesn’t go the way you planned, but the new path can have plenty of exciting opportunities!

What’s the biggest hurdle you’ve faced as a postdoctoral researcher and how did you tackle or resolve it?

Lack of support for postdocs to advance their career within academic institutions. I think this is often unintentional—some people don’t even know what a postdoc is!—but it can be damaging to a postdoc’s confidence and career path. There seems to be a misperception within some academic circles that once you finish your Ph.D. and have published a few papers, then you clearly know what you’re doing and how to do research, so you don’t need supervision or mentorship any more. If you arrive at a new institution as a postdoc, senior or established academic staff may ignore you, either because the institutional structure doesn’t consider your position “real” academic staff or because they think you just want to be left alone to write papers. Sure, we all know how to do our research, and we all want time to write papers! But what postdocs really need at this career stage is support and guidance on the strategic and operational elements of climbing the academic ladder.

If you find yourself in this position, I think it helps to ask questions, push senior academics in your department to find out what opportunities are available to postdocs (sometimes there aren’t any, but you may prompt someone to get the ball rolling), put your hand up for internal service opportunities when you can, and reach out to academics outside your immediate circle for collaboration or guidance. External collaborations are also extremely valuable in these situations, especially if you’re feeling isolated at your home institution. Being active on social media has helped me make rewarding connections and collaborations with other researchers who I may not have met otherwise. These exciting external collaborations have kept me going many times when I’ve felt like giving up on my career because of lack of internal support or validation at work.

How do you balance research, teaching, and outreach, and which one do you like the most?

I think there’s a lot of misperception about what outreach is for academics, and the term tends to get thrown about with lots of different meanings. It’s just a new term for something that many academics have been doing for years:  engaging with audiences beyond colleagues and peers. I see outreach as an integral part of an academic’s job, not an unnecessary or opt-in activity. And I also don’t think that all outreach should be “paid,” as that diminishes the value of outreach as a community service.

I think balancing research and teaching is the hardest for most academics. The administrative expectations that come with both roles, especially teaching, often impact the time and clarity of thinking you need to do research. I’m on a research-only contract at the moment, but I had a secondment to a teaching-only contract over the summer semester. During the teaching contract, I had literally zero mental or physical capacity to make progress on any of my research, but my outreach activities have been consistent throughout. I don’t see outreach as a designated activity to make time for, I just do it as a way to share my knowledge and passion for insects and ecology. It also keeps me sane!

As academics, we are so lucky to be in an independent position and have a role description focused on building solid expertise in particular areas of knowledge. But just knowing things, and talking about these things with colleagues that also know these things, can be boring! Sharing knowledge beyond our like-minded peers allows knowledge to grow and inform. There are many different ways to do outreach, and there are so many great technologies available now; I think academics can find the best platforms or approaches that suit them. Sometimes teaching undergrad classes can be a form of outreach.

What’s your favourite insect and why?

I have too many favourites! Two groups I get excited about are syrphid flies and case moths. Syrphid flies are gorgeous insects; they remind me of tiny fighter jets. They’re a great example of insects that can have multiple effects on ecosystem function across their life cycle: They’re pollinators as adults, and larvae can be herbivores, predators, or detritivores, and some are semi-aquatic. One genus, Toxomerus, was assumed to have predatory larvae for a long time, until some species were discovered feeding on pollen.

Case moths are equally fascinating, and many of the Australian species are still a mystery. I love that they drag their houses around with them and that they can be identified by the structural attributes of their houses, even though the actual material used to build it will vary depending on their food sources! These two groups are also excellent examples of how little we know about even the most well-known insects; syrphid flies in particular are well-recognised and globally distributed, but there are very few identification keys available for most of the world and a lot of unknowns about the ecology of many species.

Ryan J. Leonard, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is also the International Branch Representative to the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Email: rjl@illinois.edu.

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