This week’s curator is Isobel Ronai. Isobel’s main research interest is in unravelling the genetic basis of important traits of ticks and honey bees. She began her science career at The University of Sydney (Australia) with a BSc (Honours) majoring in Biology and the History & Philosophy of Science. In 2017 Isobel completed her award-winning PhD on the genetic and mechanistic basis of worker sterility in the honey bee. Her thesis provided insights into how worker sterility in the social insects evolved from a solitary ancestor.
Isobel was then interested in studying the genetics of ticks, an understudied ectoparasitic arthropod group that has a significant impact on the health of humans and other animals worldwide. From 2018–2019 she was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Columbia University (US), which is located at the epicentre of tick-borne diseases in the US. Isobel is currently a visiting Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Arthropod Genetics and Genomics Laboratory Group at the University of Nevada, Reno (US) where she is working on molecular techniques in ticks. Isobel is also very involved in the Entomological Society of America and currently serves as an Early Career Professional representative.
We spoke to Isobel and asked her a few questions before her curation week.
Why/How did you end up in science?
As far back as I can remember I have always loved learning about Science. During High School my favourite subject was Biology and when I was meant to be studying I often ended up reading my Biology books rather than working on my other subjects. I also need to give a shout out to my amazing senior high school biology teacher who made me fall in love with the intricacies of biology with her anecdotal stories.
Why did you choose your current field/what keeps you there?
I have always been fascinated by the fact that tiny changes at the molecular level can lead to major changes for the life of an organism. I am lucky enough to be doing my research at a time when we have the techniques available to make tiny tweaks at the molecular level and see how this affects an organism.
Tell us about your work?
My Ph.D. work was on one of the insects most beneficial to the world — the honey bee. In a typical honey bee colony there is one queen but many of thousands of workers. These female workers cannot lay any eggs. I investigated how worker sterility operates at the genetic level.
I am currently working on one of the most detrimental arthropods — ticks. The pathogens ticks transmit are hugely harmful to the wellbeing of humans, pets, wildlife and agricultural animals. But ticks are hugely understudied relative to their impact. I have recently worked on projects related to the genetic basis of host-seeking behaviour of the black-legged tick and another which established the mammalian host preferences of the newly invasive Asian longhorned tick in the US. My ultimate goal is to deepen our understanding of tick biology so that targeted control is feasible.
What is the public interest angle on your research?
Ticks are responsible for more than 20 diseases in humans and other animals. Across the globe ticks have been shifting in both prevalence and distribution in response to climate change. This has led to unprecedented outbreaks of tick-borne diseases (such as, Lyme disease and Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever) and highlights the critical need for research on ticks that will enable tick control.
Do you have any interesting external/extracurricular obligations?
I have formal qualifications and interdisciplinary research expertise in the Philosophy of Biology. It allows me to critically engage with my biology research and means my theoretical work is highly connected with what is happening in biology today. One of the articles I wrote provides evidence for the vital role that basic biological research plays for applied research.
Any interesting hobbies you’d like to share?
I am a keen photographer in my spare time. As a scientist I have been blessed with some amazing travel opportunities and I always bring along my camera. But my favourite photograph subjects would have to be wildlife and historic buildings.
How would you describe your ideal day off? (Scientists are people too!)
I would grab my camera and go exploring for the day. One of my favourite places to explore would be a natural history museum, the more historic the better!