Anna Dornhaus knew in the fifth grade she wanted to be a biology professor. She was fascinated with animal behavior and wanted to “get into the science side of it.”
Her educational journey led her to the University of Würzburg in Germany, which had a renowned zoology program focusing on insect social behavior. It’s where she discovered she could study sophisticated group-level behaviors in ants and bees.
Since arriving at the UA in 2005, Dornhaus has built a lab that studies how ants, honey bees and bumble bees solve problems as a group, make decisions and communicate danger or the location of food sources to the colony.
Dornhaus, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, is interested in the evolution of intelligence and the evolutionary processes that lead to bigger brains, i.e., where intelligence comes from. To understand how and why intelligence evolves, it’s important to look at more than one example, she says.
Just as human beings have intelligence and form collective organizations, so do insects. But ant colonies don’t parallel human societies.
Ants have evolved into “pure cooperators” with little self-interest, unlike humans, who have great self-interest. Insects’ information-flow network is targeted and efficient, coordinated to achieve a goal.
Relatively tiny and short-lived, the insects have a lot of variance in their learning abilities, the ability to weigh different types of information and their willingness to innovate and explore new environments or food sources.
Dornhaus also studies group-level personalities and behavior in ants.
“We’ve shown that some colonies are more risk-averse, as a group. They don’t like to take risks, whereas others as a group are risk-prone. They don’t mind taking risks, and these different types of colonies differ in a lot of ways. It’s not just one behavior; it’s several different behaviors all associated with each other.”
Those behaviors seem to correlate with what biologists call life-history strategy, Dornhaus says.
The risk-averse groups focus on the growth of the colony, invest in repair and do not reproduce quickly. Those that are risk-takers reproduce fast, don’t focus on repair and colony growth, and make a lot of new queens quickly.
She is proud that most of her post-doctoral assistants and a few of her graduate students already have found faculty positions in their fields. And she also has a large group of undergraduate students working alongside the others, “all contributing to real research. Everyone is creating new information.”
But instructing and mentoring university students is just part of Dornhaus’ passion for teaching.
In addition to her insect-behavior research, Dornhaus would like to be known for inspiring elementary school teachers throughout Tucson to teach the scientific method to their students.
Her goal with the younger kids is two-fold: To expose them to the central concepts of critical scientific thinking and to help them understand that “science is the place to go if you really want certainty.”
And they get first-hand experience in how cool science is.
“Mentoring young people in the actual process of science is incredibly important to me,” she says.
Working with the Flowing Wells Unified School District, Dornhaus developed a hands-on science experiment for second-graders. Students read age-appropriate books about crickets and each student gets a cricket to study.
The kids start by thinking about their research question and what they might see depending on what is the correct answer. They observe the insects and record whether crickets are hiding or out in the open. The data are put on charts, not unlike the way professional scientists record the results of their studies.
The award-winning classroom program Dornhaus has developed meets the new Arizona education science standards and includes reading, writing and math activities.
“I’m really invested in trying to bring the central concepts of science to elementary school education,” she says.
However simple the activity, Dornhaus say what’s key is “reflecting the core ideas of how science should work.” Understanding those fundamental principles applies to people of all ages.
“Everything about how we do science is geared toward being really certain about the results. How is it we are so confident we are right even when it sounds unbelievable? Part of it is the scientific method,” she says.