Amy Toth: Wasps like us

toth_amyThis feature is part of the “Nine Lives” feature from the summer 2013 issue of VISIONS magazine profiling nine ISU faculty members who are mixing it up in and out of the classroom

Back Story: Originally from Tolland, Conn. Earned a B.A. in biology in 2000 from Bard College in upstate New York. After I got my Ph.D. in 2009 at the University of Illinois, I did a post-doc at Penn State from 2009 to 2010. I’ve been on faculty here for three years.

How I came to Iowa State: The main connection was through my husband initially. He’s a faculty member in agronomy. We were both on the job market and there was an opening here in agronomy. He ended up getting the job offer, and I was really pleased to see that they had not only an entomology department but also an ecology and evolution department because those are my two academic homes. Luckily I had some really supportive people in EEOB. They ended up giving me an adjunct position for the first year that I was here; they gave me a lab and some start-up funds. [Eventually I] was able to negotiate a tenure-track position.

What I teach: I have taught three classes so far. One was a seminar-type course on the topic of evolution and creationism. Then there were two graduate classes: One was geared toward organismal biologists; the other was working with students on the computational side. Next semester I will be teaching an introductory course on animal behavior, which is my first love.

Scholarly pursuits: I’m interested in wasps because they are social. Honeybees are kind of the famous example of a social animal. They’re really fascinating, and people try to compare human society to honeybee society. But paper wasps, I think, are more parallel to humans in a way. They live in slightly smaller groups, so it’s more like a tribal setting where they know each and every individual. Another aspect of their biology that I think is more similar to humans is that they fight with each other. They do cooperate – most of the time. There are queens, and there are workers, but they are always fighting with each other over the chance to become the queen. Every wasp knows its position in the hierarchy: who’s above them, who’s below them. They have a lot to keep track of.

One thing we’re looking at is the difference between queens and workers. That’s sort of the fundamental question. The queen is more behaviorally dominant, more aggressive, laying all the eggs, staying on the nest. The workers have to go off and hunt for food, then they have to feed the offspring of the queen. It’s really dangerous having to go out and forage. Nobody wants to be a subordinate worker because they have to do all the dirty work.

Is a wasp born a queen: No. They’re all born the same. Any egg can become a queen or worker; it depends on the environment it’s raised in. We’re really interested in the impact of the environment on the developmental outcome. This is actually a really hot topic in human biology.

Why insects? I was always interested in animals as a kid. I’ve just always really enjoyed watching animals do what they do. I love spending time outdoors. Probably the highlight of my whole childhood was catching frogs and crayfish and things down by the brook by my grandparents’ house. My mom always said, “You should study animal behavior.” I always thought, “Yeah, but you can’t do that as a job.” And it turns out you CAN do that as a job.

At home: Husband, Fernando Miguez; sons Felix, 5, and Leo, 11 months

How I balance teaching and research and family: You feel like your life is really crazy sometimes, and you wake up in the morning and you’re like, “All right, I have
a hundred things to do today.” But instead of feeling beaten down and overwhelmed,
you just have to have this attitude like, “I’m superwoman. I’m really gonna kick
some butt today.” So think it’s just having a positive outlook.

Some people might not know: If I weren’t a scientist I probably would be a musician. I really enjoy classical music.

First job: Besides babysitting… I had a job at a diner, the Track Nine Diner. I washed dishes there and got paid $3.75 an hour. It was a terrible place to work.

Practical advice about wasps and bees: Keep calm. When we work with bees, we move very slowly. We try not to bump things around. They respond to vibrations. Stinging insects are not aggressive; they’re defensive. They’re not out to get you. When a bee or wasp is foraging on a flower or on your food or if it’s in your car, the last thing it wants to do is sting you. They only sting when they’re in their nest. So don’t be afraid if there’s a bee on your food. Just try not to bite it. I’ve done that before, and it’s very uncomfortable.

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