The Ant Room
The main objectives of this project were to:
- Support students at the NJIT Hillier College of Architecture and Design in creating interactive educational designs as part of their capstone projects
- Support trainees in collecting ant colonies and use the collected colonies for establishing the Ant Room
- Use the ant room to engage with the K-12 community in and around Newark, NJ to teach them about ants and insect-microbial symbiosis
Many animals use associations with microorganisms to help with important tasks such as nutrient and energy acquisition, detoxification of natural compounds found in diets, and defense against pathogens and predators. Ants, a family of insects that can be found around the world, take part in a multitude of different symbioses. The variety of symbioses that ants engage with provide a valuable tool for educating the public about animal-microbe symbioses and microbiomes more generally.
My goal for this project was to create an Ant Room, where colonies of different charismatic species of ants are maintained, partially to be used for experimentation, but mostly to be used as a community outreach site. My lab is in Rutgers, Newark, and this Ant Room would be built in collaboration with faculty at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), which has its campus across the street. Both universities are located in downtown Newark, New Jersey, one of the most diverse cities in the country. We would have the opportunity to host local school groups and other members of the public to come view our ants and learn about symbiosis. This would also give an opportunity to showcase the work that I did while I was a student at MBL, studying the honeypot ant microbiome.
Goal 1: Working with NJIT design students
In January of 2022, I met with students from Prof. Martina Decker’s Industrial Design course, to pitch the idea of working with me for their capstone projects. Two students signed on: Miranda Austin and Kajal Ramrup.
The students went through the design process as prescribed in their Industrial Design course. I worked with them as their client and advisor throughout the process. We met several times in the beginning so that I could teach them about ants and their microbial symbionts, and then attended their scheduled project critiques, where Prof. Decker, the rest of the students, and I would provide feedback on their projects. It was fascinating to participate in this process where I was able to help bring a scientific perspective to this industrial design process.
Miranda decided to take on creating display colonies for Myrmecocystus honeypot ants. She began by learning about the ants from talking to me, and through a literature search. By learning about the ants needs and what would be necessary from display colonies, she began the process of ideation, to come up with different ideas for what the colony could look like.
Like her chamber designs, Miranda went through different iterations of designs for the tunnels, foraging chambers, and connection points for her display colonies. In the end, she was able to produce a display colony that is modular, storable, and cleanable, and she provided schematics so that it would be easy to replicate the design for future display colonies.
In the end, Miranda was able to produce a unique, beautiful, and functional ant display colony to house Myrmecocystus honeypot ants. I am excited to put actual ants in it soon. This will be a wonderful focal point for the Ant Room, and with minor modifications, will be able to house different types of ants as well.
Kajal decided to create educational objects/toys that the Ant Room visitors could interact with. Her focus was on teaching Ant Room visitors about leaf-cutter ants. Although the ROCS funding will not support our acquisition of leaf-cutter ant colonies, we hope to acquire some soon, and will use a modified version of Miranda’s design to house them. Kajal’s designs will be a perfect companion to the leaf-cutter ant colonies to teach K-12 visitors about the ants’ fungus gardens, and insect-microbial symbiosis.
Kajal took on two separate designs. The first of these was a layered acrylic educational toy that shows different layers of the fungus garden that ants grow. Each layer presents different information about the fungus gardens and the behavior of the ants. Kajal also went through many different iterations of the design before she produced the working toy. She was plagued with an acrylic printing machine that was constantly down for repairs, but in the end she was able to produce the final product.
For her second project, Kajal chose to create an interactive toy where users could move flaps to reveal information about insect-microbial symbiosis, in both leaf-cutter ant fungus gardens, and with many other types of insects. She went through many iterations of this as well, and eventually produced a final product that will be an excellent educational tool in the ant room.
Her two products together are beautiful and functional, and also come with instructions so that we can replicate the work, and expand on it with additional modules on types of symbiosis, as we expand the Ant Room.
Goal 2: Collecting Ant Colonies with Trainees
Another important aspect of setting up the Ant Room is collecting ants for the display colonies. With this grant, I am using the funds to collect the ants while training graduate students and postdocs on ant collection methods. We will be traveling to the American Museum of Natural History Southwestern Field Station where Myrmecocystus honeypot ants are found. The field work will be conducted during the wet season, when the ants are most active, and when the ground is easier to dig, July 10-15. The trainees that will be included are:
Indira Sawh, Masters student
Charlotte Francoeur, Postdoctoral associate
Andrew Burchill, PhD student
Marie-Pierre Meurville, PhD student
The leftover funds from the ROCS grant will be used to pay for accommodation for these trainees at the field station. We will be collaborating with several other principal investigators: Michele Lanan, resident scientist at the AMNH Southwestern Field Station, Adria LeBoeuf, Assistant Professor at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, and Caswell Munyai, Senior Lecturer at the University of Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa. We will work together to collect honeypot ant colonies, and this will also provide these trainees with an excellent opportunity to network and learn about these organisms in their natural habitat. We will have multiple field excursions, share research, and use the time together to plan future work. This will be a fantastic opportunity for the trainees to launch their research careers.
The colonies that we collect will be brought back to Rutgers/NJIT and used for both research and for display in the Ant Room.
Goal 3: Use the Ant Room to engage with K-12 students in Newark and surrounding regions
Ultimately, this is our long-term goal with setting up the ant room, but we can’t start this until we acquire ants. The ROCS grant has been instrumental in helping to get the Ant Room off the ground, and I am optimistic that the ant room will be able to impact many students in the Newark area for years to come.
My intentions with this project were to get the Ant Room idea off the ground, and that has certainly happened. In the process I have been able to work with two industrial design students and four science trainees (students and postdocs). Ultimately, the Ant Room will have an impact on all the school groups that come to visit. They will be able to learn about ants and insect-microbial symbiosis and be exposed to institutes of higher learning. People (students and postdocs) in my lab will help me to interact with the school groups in the Ant Room, and this will be yet another enriching experience that will come out of this project. Learning how to communicate with the public and participate in outreach will be a valuable lesson for members of my lab for a long time.
Altogether, the ROCS grant will have long-lasting impacts well beyond the duration of the funding, it is the seed that was necessary to grow a fruitful outreach project for years to come.
I feel that this project was a success. I am very impressed with the work that the industrial design students have done, and I am confident that we will be able to use their products and the ants we collect to get the Ant Room off the ground.