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How One Entomologist Looks to Fossil Ants to Answer Big Biology Questions

Phillip Barden in Australia

Phillip Barden, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of biology at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and an expert in fossil ant species and the evolutionary lessons they teach us. “Insects are amazing model organisms for a ton of important questions,” he says. (Photo courtesy of Phillip Barden, Ph.D.)

By Carly Tribull, 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.

Phillip Barden, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Federated Department of Biological Sciences at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, who studies the evolution of social insects and their ecological impact. He earned his bachelor’s degree in ecology and evolution in 2009 from Arizona State University and his Ph.D. in comparative biology in 2015 from the Richard Gilder Graduate School at the American Museum of Natural History. Below, learn more about Barden, his research, and his perspectives on careers in science.

Tribull: Can you describe your current research?

Barden: Sure thing! My core questions center around the evolution of social insects and their ecological impact. And when I say social insects, I mean ants and occasionally termites—I’ve never even seen a eusocial thrips or ambrosia beetle! I also use the ant fossil record as a model for how best to maximize the information content we can extract from paleontological specimens.

One of my favorite fun facts is that there are about as many described fossil ant species as fossil dinosaurs—about 750. Our big push lately is better understanding the early fossil history of ants as well as how extinction has shaped the social insect communities we see today. The paleo work involves systematics, fun imaging techniques like CT-scanning or confocal microscopy, and some comparative morphological methodology. The fossils are telling us that ant evolutionary history involves some pretty significant extinctions. For example, in the Cretaceous between 100 million years ago and approximately 75 million years ago, most of the ant species we find belong to lineages that died out most probably around the time of the last mass extinction, 66 million years ago. These lost lineages include haidomyrmecine “hell ants,” which have these wild scythe-like mandibles that are not seen in any living species. We’re also working on more recent and local extinctions by identifying losses of taxa within the same geographic region over time. So, we have this emerging picture of extinction and faunal turnover at multiple temporal scales.

We’re also working on projects related to the functional morphology and comparative genomics of extant insects. The central question in these projects is, essentially, “What can we learn about how evolution works from convergence?” Do convergent phenotypic trends have similar genetic underpinnings or ecological pressures? I’ve always been bonkers about convergent evolution, and an added bonus is that this comparative approach helps us learn more about extinct critters as well.

Lastly, I’m getting pretty sprawly but excited about recent collaborations with folks in physics and industrial design. The physics projects are on the chemical and preservational properties of fossil amber; it’s great because the tools that are everyday for them are mind blowing for me, while amber specimens that don’t contain insects are not my thing but very exciting to them. It’s a win-win! On the industrial design front, we’re putting together a pipeline to craft digital and physical models of fossil taxa through 3D modeling, printing, and casting. It’s pretty cool seeing a 100:1 scale of a 100-million-year-old animal, and our field tests in outreach show us that kiddos tend to agree!

3D model of Linguamyrmex vladi ant

In the course of his work, Phillip Barden, Ph.D., has studied ancient ant species, such as the 99-million-year-old Linguamyrmex vladi Barden & Grimaldi 2017, shown in a 3D model here, developed in with New Jersey Institute of Technology industrial design students Jackson Fordham, Oliver Budd, and Victor Nzegwu and associate professor Martina Decker. (Image courtesy of Phillip Barden, Ph.D.)

What’s your favorite aspect of your research?

I get to answer fun questions for a living. These can be ones that are on my mind or those that students generate. I like thinking about how best to crack questions, especially if we have limited datasets, as with the fossils. Limitations can be spooky, but they help you think of creative ways to get a rigorous answer. We can’t rely on obtaining new fossil material, so we have to design custom-fit methods for each question and set of specimens.

This tends to make the work feel fresh for me as well. For example, an undergraduate student in my lab, Chloe Jelley, needed to get accurate measurements of antenna surface area in a ton of different ant species for her project. We talked about how best to do this, and she remembered something she learned from calculus called the disc method for obtaining the volume of a funky shape. So, we go to the calculus textbook and math websites to work up a protocol, all to better learn how ants sense across lineages. How cool is that?!

Can you describe your current position, and what the split is between research, teaching, mentorship (both undergraduate and graduate), and service (to your institution and community)?

I am a toddler principal investigator, a two-year-old tenure-track assistant professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). My teaching load is one-one, meaning one class in the fall and one in the spring. I mostly teach an introductory ecology and evolution course, which is a good place to meet students who want to work in the lab as well. For service, I’m on our Ph.D. admission committee and am helping to make sure our department has a solid digital presence.

To the wider community, I serve on two editorial boards (Journal of Insect Science and PLOS One) and am always happy to do outreach. I tend to connect with non-scientists through public talks (including SkypeAScientist, which everyone should check out!), pitching in on an occasional museum exhibit, or connecting my students with bioblitz or STEM education programs that I might not be able to attend.

I probably spend the most time on research and mentorship. For research, that means writing grants and papers, data analysis, writing, writing, revising, collecting data, writing, and, oh yeah, writing! I am lucky to mentor both undergraduate students and graduate students in research in the lab. Mentorship involves working with students to figure out what they are interested in and what kind of experiences will help them with their careers in the long term. We work together to find a project that is feasible given the specimens and equipment we have in the lab. Then, we develop a game plan and then head off to build up a dataset. We teach students R so they can get to know how their data connects with their questions, then we pore over the data to see how we did! We have a few options for paid or for-credit research here at NJIT. These opportunities are great because they not only compensate the students but they also allow them to gain experience from writing up a proposal and doing the project through to presenting and potentially even publication.

Neivamyrmex ectopus in Dominican amber

An army ant, Neivamyrmex ectopus preserved in 16-million-year-old amber from the Dominican Republic. (Image courtesy of Phillip Barden, Ph.D.)

You’ve only been a mentor for a short time. Can you describe a lesson you’ve learned about mentorship?

One of the best lessons I’ve learned is that not all students are me! It sounds silly, but it can be easy to intuitively assume that your own likes or dislikes apply to others. Of course, I knew that not everyone would want to sit down with ant specimens under the scope all day and that the majority of students have no desire to be a professor focused on social insects. But there are broader elements that are important to consider.

For example, I really was not a fan of structure as a student. I did not like deadlines and was often happiest when I could go off on my own. This may be true for some students, but certainly not all! In my first few months, I had a student ask for more deadlines, which was a bit of a wake-up call. I’ve since worked to put more structure into my mentoring and to remember that each student has different requirements. It’s all about working to make sure that folks in the lab are operating at their potential and in a place they find comfortable and supportive.

How has your life changed in the transition from graduate student to postdoc to assistant professor?

I wish I could offer more clever or insightful perspective here, but it really is that tired, generalized adage about getting older. As a grad student I had comparatively lots of time and energy but fewer resources—resources can mean money, but also expertise, collaborators to talk to or work with, et cetera. As an assistant professor I have more resources and a good amount of energy—although definitely less than in graduate school, in my case!—and so time is the limiting factor. As a student it was all about learning and getting my sea legs, while as faculty I find that being effective with my time is most vital. Being a postdoc was kind of an intermediate between the two, but with this cool super power where I was a ghost, essentially imperceptible to most.

fossil ants in Dominican amber

An aggregation of fossil ant species entombed in 16 million year old Dominican amber. (Image courtesy of Phillip Barden, Ph.D.)

What advice would you give current early-career professional entomologists on the job hunt?

This is less for applying to entomology departments and more for general biology departments, but I’d say it’s important to be flexible with defining yourself as a member of any one field. As entomologists, it can be easy for folks to conjure up visions of what it is we do and see them as perhaps too specialized or esoteric. In fact, insects are amazing model organisms for a ton of important questions! So, sell your system and help hiring committees see what broad themes or questions in biology you are uniquely positioned to answer.

That, and be sure to send your statements around to trusted friends and collaborators, especially those outside of your own field. What would an ornithologist or macroevolutionary theorist think while reading about your work on dyticid systematics? Chances are decent that an entomologist will not be on the hiring committee, so it’s good to get fresh eyes on your work to ensure that non-insect people are seeing what you want them to see.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to your undergraduate student self? Your graduate student self?

I would tell my undergraduate self that there is no magic “scientist on” switch that they flip on when you finish graduate school. I would tell my graduate student self that there is no “faculty on” switch that they flip on when you are hired as an assistant professor. Focus on learning and growing.

What is one thing you would change about the field of entomology?

I’m biased but wish we’d talk more about how cool extinct insects are! Some notable hits beyond ants were: Kalligrammatidae, Jurassic neuroptera with wing spots just like modern butterflies; Palaeodictyoptera, the order of massive six-winged insects that predate dinosaurs by about a hundred million years; and Caputoraptor, a dictyopteran with a wild serrated head and pronotum. Take that, tyrannosaurids!

Carly Tribull, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of biology at Farmingdale State College in New York, the Systematics, Evolution & Biodiversity (SysEB) Section representative to the ESA Early Career Professionals (ECP) Committee, and the ECP liaison to the SysEB Section Governing Council. Twitter: @cmtribull. Email:

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