Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Scientists in Stitches - Dr. Deborah Gordon

This "Scientists in Stitches" post features Dr. Deborah Gordon, a professor at Stanford in the Department of Biology. Dr. Gordon studies the collective behavior of biological systems using harvester ant colonies. 

Ants are social insects that operate without central control. This means that there are not 'boss' ants to direct the behavior of underling ants. Harvester ants gather seeds from the environment. They leave their protected colony and enter harsh desert conditions in search of scattered seeds. Once an ant finds a seed, it returns to the colony. As the ant returns to the colony, it will briefly touch antennae with another ant and that ant will go foraging. 

In particular, Dr. Gordon investigates how harvester ants use these interactions to regulate behavior and how these small local interactions direct the dynamics of the entire colony. Ants use these interactions as a proxy for how much food is available. If there are a lot of seeds near the colony, ants will find seeds and return more frequently, thus sending more ants out to collect all the seeds. When there are fewer seeds, the ants meander longer and cover the area more thoroughly before they find a seed and return, reducing rate of ants leaving the nest.

Dr. Gordon's work is relevant to studying other networks without central control such as other biological systems and, perhaps even networks such as the internet. To learn more about Dr. Gordon's work, check out her lab's website here, her TED talks in 2003 and 2014, and her article in Scientific American

If you would like to see more photos of the hat and get a link to the pattern, check out this blog post.

Dr. Gordon showing off some of her ant paraphernalia while wearing
her hat that features ants interacting 

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