My research focuses on how social animals overcome the problem of disease. Like humans, animal societies are at risk of epidemics due to a high density of hosts and the frequency interactions between them, both of which encourage and ease the spread of infections. Using ants and their fungal pathogens as a lab-based model, my aim is to understand how infectious diseases have shaped the evolution of animal societies and resulted in collective diseases defences.
In addition, I am fascinated by the idea that some animal groups – namely the social insects – have transitioned beyond sociality to form a new type of organism, known as the superorganism. Remarkably, like paradigmatic organisms, superorganisms appear to have evolved their own form of immunity, based on collective behaviour, to detect and eliminate infections. Currently, I am exploring whether this superorganism immune system can provide long term protection against frequently encountered diseases through the individual experience of worker insects (e.g. via learning and memory). This could be analogous to the immune memory seen in vertebrate immune systems.
I obtained my PhD in evolutionary biology from the Institute of Science and Technology in Austria, before completing a postdoc on bumblebee cognition at Royal Holloway University of London. In 2020, I joined the Department of Zoology at Oxford as a Departmental Lecturer in Animal Behaviour and took up a Stipendiary Lecturer position at St Hugh’s College, where I also act as the personal tutor for biology.