Written by Merin George
“How does your research directly help society?” – is the second most common question I get. I work on forest ants. This question is trickier to answer, especially in my research field, where the effects on society are more indirect. I agree that research, in general, is meant to help society as a whole improve. But not every research is going to directly change society as a whole. Research on diseases, crop improvement and climate change will help millions and significantly improve our society. But research like mine on ant diversity is not going to directly change society as we know it. The world isn’t holding its breath to find out whether Camponotus ants eat more proteins or carbohydrates. These kinds of researches are meant to add to our collective knowledge. Although their direct effects on society are not world-shattering, it is this collective knowledge that most other research fields are built on. For example, when people find sudden crop losses due to an invasive species, we need knowledge on the distribution of the species to understand if it is an exotic species. That is when researches like mine come to use. But it is always so hard to make people understand the importance of this. Most people need every research to be completely world-altering. That is kind of difficult to find in my field.
It’s not that easy to find the approval of the masses, considering my field is biology. Especially in a country like mine where if you are not a doctor or an engineer, people are going to bash you for your degree. Most people don’t understand that people can be passionate about other things like roaming around in forests and getting bitten by leeches. Just kidding, leeches are a nuisance, but you get used to them……..eventually. I mean I could have gotten a PhD degree in molecular biology or any other more lab oriented field without ever stepping outside my lab, but I would be so bored. Not to say that molecular biology is boring, but for me, I like my fieldwork. I wouldn’t be able to see the beautiful mountains in the distance covered in fog but beautiful all the same. The forest is an entirely different experience, and only those who have been there know their beauty. There are dangers in the forest, but all the same, the beauty of being in nature is something to revel in.
Research on ants was not what I had originally wished to do. During my bachelors I wanted to be a neuroscientist. I wanted to study the brain and discover something novel. It was during my Masters that I came to know that for neuroscience works, you have to do experiments on mice and kill them. Being too soft-hearted, I can’t kill mice. So I gave up on that. I was in search of a new field of study when our department organized a Workshop on ants. One of the experts in India, along with a conservation organization here, came to teach us how to collect, identify and preserve ants. I was hooked. I saw how interesting these tiny ants were. Of course, as a zoology major, I already had a substantial amount of knowledge about ants. But what I didn’t know was that there were so many ant species waiting to be discovered. So many exciting behaviours to be studied. I realized that perhaps I was good at taxonomy because it was my calling. That was when I decided to be a Myrmecologist.
It’s not easy to convince people that studying ants and spending hours at the microscope looking for specific characters in ants is vital to society. But I love what I do, and I am thankful for having been given the opportunity. I have now learned to not care about people’s opinions but instead just enjoy the research. It isn’t easy to do the same every time I meet people who ask the scope of my work, and I feel the need to give them a whole talk on the importance of conservation. I tell them that ants have a huge role in our ecosystem, from being pollinators to increasing the soil fertility (sometimes even better than earthworms). They are so crucial and yet underrated in the role they play in the ecosystem. But despite my talks, people just wave it off as an unnecessary waste of tax money. I have even had people who told me no one cared whether these animals are there or not and that ants are insignificant to us. To them, I simply smile and nod because there’s only so much you can do with uninformed people, and I certainly don’t have the time nor energy to explain this to everyone. I, however, have hope for the future because most young people I have seen are more aware of our environment and the importance of conservation. Especially with the advent of social media and popular science articles, more people are coming to understand and take action to conserve the environment. I hope this will help enhance that knowledge and help build a better tomorrow. Let’s hope for a future where every time you say your work in conservation, people actually know what you do and have a more positive response.
For more of Merin, check out @Merineliza on Twitter