Interview&Lecture of Biologist: Dr. Daniel Charbonneau
The video was streamed on YouTube on Sunday September 6, at 4pm EST.
"When I was a kid, I was very interested in animals, dinosaurs and pretty much anything to do with natural history. I spent countless hours poring over this massive atlas of plants and animals we had at my house. I still vividly remember the illustrations of pre-Cambrian plants, leopards lazily resting in trees, and all the strange animals I’d never heard of or imagined I’d ever see, like armadillos and anteaters. At the time, I wasn’t especially interested in insects, though I did dig up my fair share of back yard ant colonies; attempting to keep them in plastic soda bottles, not understanding that just like those ant farms you could buy, they didn’t have a queen and the colony would die out pretty quickly.
During my teen years, my interests veered more towards technology, electronics, and computers which led to my pursuing a degree in computer science and engineering. As part of my degree, I ended up taking a biology course that fully reignited my fascination with the natural world. My teacher was phenomenal and had spent most of his career doing field work in marine biology, working with deep sea fish, sharks and dolphins. Going to class was more like witnessing the behind the scenes of a nature documentary than a lecture. I was hooked and immediately changed my focus to biology.
While studying biology, I began to see connections between my understanding of computer systems and biological systems as complex systems where the interaction between each component produces a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. However, none was more fascinating than social insect societies that have this entire additional level of complexity within each colony. These societies that seem to mirror our own human societies, and yet can also be strikingly different. These societies whose function seems to mimic human brains and computers in their capacity to process information and ‘think’.
The worldview that I came away with and the lines of inquiry that derived from it led me to pursue a PhD studying the organization of social insect colonies. Once I began diving into the way that social insect colonies organized work, allocated tasks and divided labor, one of the most striking bits of information I came across was that, contrary to our notion that social insects are these super productive societies, seemingly the majority of individuals in a colony actually appear to be doing nothing in particular. Simply standing around while other workers go about their work. And so, that became the focus of my thesis, and ultimately the focus of my ongoing and future research. " - Daniel Charbonneau
Photos: Daniel Charbonneau