Meet Meghan Barrett, a cognitive ecologist and science communicator who got her start by singing to bees!

“Be careful, and they won’t sting you,” my mother told me, pushing trowel through soft dirt near my feet. Creeping vines covered in sharp thorns towered over me, raspberries dangling tantalizingly in small clusters, ready for plucking by small fingers, for gathering close and savoring each burst of sweetness. The hum of honeybees, lazy bumble bees, hovered around us: the pulse of summer. Sunlight glinted off the backs of beetles, shiny as any watch face or ring; ants and spiders swayed on the branches of the bushes, in time with the gentle breeze or my not-so-gentle raspberry collecting.

Agapostemon (bee)/ Meghan Barrett

When my mother would go inside, hot and ready for water, the bees’ hum seemed to get even louder – as though they were trying to have a conversation, bridge the buzz-English divide. At six, this seemed highly plausible. But what were they saying, these friendly bees? I tried to understand, but could never quite make out the words. Perhaps they were frightened; I was so big – did their mothers tell them to be careful, too? If they were scared, they might sting – how could I show them they had nothing to fear from me?

Until my mother came back out doors, I would sing to the bees. “Don’t worry, I love you,” a tremulous, high-pitched, youthful voice. “I’m here for the raspberries, and we can be friends.” I picked and ate my fill until the sun began to set and the Japanese beetles that so irritated my mother invaded the yard, and then I would get called inside for dinner, delivering one last wistful song to the bees – “I love you, thank you, I’ll see you again.”

Meghan with bees and diploma, graduated!/ Meghan Barrett

No scientific papers have been published to show that singing to bees prevents them from stinging you, but that was perhaps my earliest hypothesis – so stay tuned, there’s time yet. As I grew older, the raspberry bushes disappeared along with much of that childish whimsy to which I was so prone; I stopped singing to bees and instead threw myself into studying medicine and neuroscience. I wrote my college essays based in part on my desire to go to medical school; an ambitious tale with neurosurgery, or perhaps trauma surgery if my fine motor skills weren’t quite good enough, as the outcome.

Despite my early intentions, medical school wasn’t in the cards for me. My first semester at my liberal arts college, I had two incredible professors – of Music and Biology, curiously enough – that got me thinking about a career in academia. The seed was planted, and by the end of my sophomore year, I realized I would need research experience if I was going to transition to graduate school (likely for neuroscience). By the time I got around to emailing professors, the only available spot was in Dr. Apple’s ecology lab – working with ant genetics.

Meghan teaching in Graduate School/ Meghan Barrett

I sucked it up with a deep sigh and told myself that the following year I would get a spot in a lab that better fit my interests; in the meantime, I signed up for Dr. Apple’s Social Insect Seminar to give myself some familiarity with ants. That summer, I took a few trips around the college’s Arboretum with Dr. Apple looking at our colonies and watching videos of ant raids. We had a species of slave-making ants, Formica pergandei, that would raid ant colonies of the smaller Formica glacialis and steal their brood to do work for the F. pergandei colony. Wide-eyed, I watched the screen as small ants, each carrying a tiny egg, spilled out of their colony entrance, scurrying away from the larger, reddish F. pergandei as they snapped their mandibles with a menacing click. That an all-out-war could occur, unnoticed, underneath my feet each day was awe-inspiring.

Augochlorini photo from Meghan’s senior year photo/ Meghan Barrett

That was the first of many extraordinary learning experiences with insects, and Dr. Apple’s fearless familiarity and exhaustive fascination with the environment re-introduced me to that childlike love of, and connection to, the natural world. As she overturned the wooden board on top of an ant nest, ants would stream up her arms, spraying formic acid and biting, a formidable and angry brigade. She would gently brush some off, reprimanding them, while I recoiled into a nearby shrub.

“It’s just a pinch,” she would tell me, calm in the face of my horror, and pick one of her skin, holding it up to me. “Smells like vinegar, don’t you think?”

In seminar, we watched videos of E.O. Wilson making pheromone trails for ants to follow. We read papers on wasp promiscuity and calculated theoretical relatedness values in paper wasp colonies. We saw bees dance to their own music in the sunlight, saying to their fellow workers, “the good flowers – they’re over here. Let me show you”.

I was hooked. “Did you know ants can make rafts to survive floods?” I told Dr. Apple after reading a paper on ‘ant architecture’.

“Some ants,” she reminded me, a mentor careful to pause me in my sweeping generalizations. Science is a specific kind of art – each species, sex, ecosystem, can be different and wonderfully complex; it requires a careful methodology to make sure you are sorting out the real truth from the noise.

As my junior year ran towards a finish line, I caught Dr. Apple in the hallway. “Did you know honeybees are invasive?” This was my newest factoid, which I delivered with the kind of amazement one typically reserves for world-changing events.

She handed me a book, The Bees in Your Backyard. “Read this.”

Grad cap and a small selection of bees/ Meghan Barrett

The Bees in Your Backyard could best be described as my letter to Hogwarts – the door to Diagon Alley opening before me, in the middle of upstate NY. There were green bees, red bees, blue, black and white, gold, with orange eyes and grey, fuzzy and smooth, solitary and social, sometimes in-between, living in the ground, in the railing of the Arboretum gazebo, in the broken twigs of a raspberry bush when someone pulled too hard to get a treat. Around me on my walk to class the air opened up, previously unnoticed wings beating, metallic exoskeletons flashing in the sun. A leafcutter dropped its haul into my hair, a tiny semi-circle of green.

Graduate school is designed to make you doubt yourself. I entered Drexel University’s Biology Ph.D. program in September of 2016, with the intention of studying cognitive ecology in native bees. There are two main pieces to that: when differences in the sensory environment lead to differences in brain resource allocation due to brain evolution (when comparing species) or due to brain plasticity (when comparing individuals). Right now, I’ve worked with wasps and army ants, even some termites – but next year, as I defend my thesis proposal, it will be all about bees.

Nothing points out your weaknesses like being thrust into designing your own experiments. Read the literature, find the new questions to push the frontier, and develop the methods to delve into the unknown. Be questioned by experts in your field; be humbled. Read more, and work harder so next time perhaps you can answer those questions. All of them. Impostor syndrome and perfectionism are not survivable conditions; graduate school is as much about your scientific growth as your personal growth.

Meghan explaining her undergrad bee survey research at a poster presentation/ Meghan Barrett

In ten years, the story of my journey with science will hopefully be as positive and uplifting as my story of my entry into science. Right now, the hardship of balancing personal and professional life, and the inefficiencies of the academic system, are frustrating (to use the kindest description). Finding time for my partner – also known as ‘work-life balance’ – is talked up in theory but looked down upon in practice.

TAs and professors are not trained in pedagogy, PIs are not trained in management and supervision; there are no protections in place to ensure fair treatment of students within or across lab environments. The incentives to encourage PIs, TAs, and professors to receive the appropriate training in the aforementioned areas are just not there; we rely solely on the exhausted good will of these people to get trained in the areas they work in most. Coming from a family of business owners and engineers, such problems perhaps seem even more egregious to me than others.

An up-close view of a spider brain I dissected; you can see the cephalothorax (‘head’ of sorts) is split open with the top (eyes) on the left and the base (with legs attached) on the right. The brain is the white fluffy bit in the middle/ Meghan Barrett

So why persist? – a question I’m sure many graduate students ask themselves, for reasons similar and dissimilar to my own. Some of it is passion – for bees, for discovery, for the process of science. Much of it is a hunger to make a change – increase the value of evidence-based teaching and professional training, increase public awareness of scientific practice (and native bees). And a small part of it is a growing maturity: the understanding that, to get raspberries, you must first have a bush with thorns.

 

Follow Meghan on Facebook and Twitter! You can read more of her writings on science and graduate school on her website.