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College Profile: Rob Dunn

Dr. Rob Dunn helps others grasp the complexity of the living world and of the people who study it.

For Dr. Rob Dunn, the world remains a captivating place full of surprises. “Mystery,” the N.C. State University biologist likes to say, “still lurks around ordinary corners.”

Exploring those corners through research and writing is perhaps what Dunn does best.
An assistant professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Dunn is by training an ant scientist who investigates, as he puts it, “small, strange and sometimes obscure interactions in the living world — but interactions that matter in some bigger way.”

By teaching students and by studying ants, parasites and other species and phenomena, he hopes to help answer such puzzling questions as where we can expect to find the most of the Earth’s undiscovered species, what patterns determine the kinds and prevalence of human diseases around the world and how global warming may affect living things.

And through essays that appear in such popular venues as National Geographic, Natural History, the Smithsonian Online and BBC Wildlife, Dunn strives to help others grasp the complexity of the living world and the people who study it.

His first book, published in 2009, is an award-winning collection of stories about some of the scientists who have made it their mission to explore life on land, in the seas, in outer space and under the microscope. Every Living Thing: Man’s Obsessive Quest to Catalog Life, from Nanobacteria to New Monkeys conveys both the conflict and thrill of scientific discovery, all the while reminding us why we should care.

Through his writing, Dunn seeks to provide “a window into the richness … of life” to people who might otherwise not get to experience it daily.

“It would be great to be able to show people that there’s this joy and beauty in trying to struggle to figure out how the living world works,” he says.

Dunn’s joy about the natural world stretches back to his childhood in Michigan, when he “was outside, mostly, kicking ant colonies and catching snakes and turtles.” But when he went off to Kalamazoo College, he did so with the intention of becoming an economist. Dunn’s dad was a banker, and he had no idea that one could make a living studying the creatures that had fascinated him as a child.  Once he figured that out, he switched his major to biology.

At one point in his undergraduate studies, he took a poetry class that proved pivotal: Not only did he meet his future wife, Monica, in the class, he also discovered his penchant for writing.

From Kalamazoo, Dunn went on to earn a doctorate at the University of Connecticut and to become a Fulbright Fellow at Curtin University in Australia and then a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Tennessee.  Along the way, he spent time studying ants in Australia, Ghana, Bolivia, Peru and Costa Rica – even discovering one that now carries his name, Camponotus dunni.

Dr. Rob Dunn investigates small interactions in the living world that matter in some bigger way — such as the patterns determining the prevalence of human diseases and the effects of global warming on living things.

In 2005, Dunn joined the faculty at N.C. State, where he teaches field ecology and emerging concepts in biology to undergraduates as well as biogeography and community ecology to graduate students. His research mixes field experiments with large-scale observational studies of the distribution of species, traits and interactions.

In forests at Duke and Harvard, Dunn leads a project in which he and his colleagues have set up 15-foot-wide chambers that are warmed to simulate the effects of climate change. Inside these chambers they are looking at what occurs when the air is warmed and what those changes mean for the forests and the creatures that live there: For example, will the impact of fire ants be exacerbated? Or will the abundance or geographic distribution of native and non-native ants change?

“Although trees are likely to move slowly in response to changing climates, some insects may, like a small but consequential tide of life, respond more quickly,” Dunn says. His simple models suggest that the warming North Carolina is expected to experience by 2050 may lead to a doubling of the number of individual ants.
Whether this is borne out in time or in Dunn’s experiments remains to be seen.

Another project, funded by NASA, attempts to understand “where there remain the most undiscovered species, whether of ants or mosquitoes or mammals or birds,” he says.

“It is a project in which we hope to take advantage of climate data derived from satellites and samples taken on the ground to predict from space where the most species are likely to be found and how that will change with time,” he explains. “We are interested in both the negative and positive consequences of the diversity of life and how it varies globally, whether in the context of valuable services provided by insects, such as the dispersal of seeds, or disservices, such as vectoring diseases.

“So one of the approaches that one of my students, Benoit Guenard, has taken is simply to say, ‘If we take the places that … we know are well-known — people have been there studying for a long, long time — what’s the relationship between the temperature and the number of species we would expect?’’

If they find places that are, for example, 26 degrees C, and yet only have eight recorded species, they will know that something is missing.

The project will include a sampling component, where scientists will go out in the field to see if the models they come up with are working. Dunn is also considering ways to involve student-scientists worldwide in the effort. He recently won a National Science Foundation grant that will involve students from classrooms around the world, from, Dunn hopes, “New York to Namibia,” in studying the living world, and in particular the ant’s worlds around them.

“There are lots of things that an 8-year-old can do and see in their backyard that nobody else in the world knows. There are just a few hundred ant biologists in the world, for example, but billions of children with hands that are just small enough and with curiosity just intense enough to be great studiers of the world around them. And so to be able to take advantage of all these eyes of students, be they 8 or 80, all over the world is to be able to see things that we wouldn’t see otherwise — I think that’s pretty exciting,” he says.

“We are very good at using our tools to see small things, or far away things, but we have no real tools for seeing the patterns in animal life.  Students can collectively see what is otherwise invisible,” he adds. “They will have to send us back samples so that we can identify what they find, but they can look at some things very much on their own. For example, how long does it take for a piece of cookie to be discovered by an ant? On the one hand, that’s really silly; but it also, I think, relates to an average student in a way they can think about in their own life.”

Studying ants and other creatures gives Dunn an analogous biological measure to connect to broader scientific questions.

Significantly, he adds, “there’s this very real biological measure that follows from this thing having to do with the ants in your picnic.

“We know from a lot of stuff we’ve done that how long it takes for an ant to get to a cookie is about the same as it takes to get to a pest on a crop — it’s about as long as it takes to get to a butterfly larva in the forest,” he says.

Making such connections between the strange, the small and the obscure and broader scientific questions is what Dunn enjoys.
“I think a lot of science today is really drilling down into something narrow. You can study one kind of nerve cell for your entire life and study it only in humans and still be considered relatively broad,” he says. “That is not the kind of science …  I have the right nature for. I have a restless brain and am much happier taking ideas … from one area and bringing them over to another – of thinking about how things relate, of the analogies between human and insect societies or the analogies between human cells and bacterial cells, for example.”

Perhaps because he reads a lot and talks a lot with scientists from disparate disciplines — to, he says, the occasional distress of his students — he’s never at a loss for ideas for stories he’d like to tell or research he’d like to conduct or simply consider.

As an example, he points to a discussion he had with a scientist who was studying the strength of skulls from different hominids.

“Just in that conversation some ideas … came up about responses to competition versus predation. And it made me realize we haven’t thought very much about whether there are physical changes in ants associated with their susceptibility to predation,” he says. “Are ants from places that have more predation, say like forest canopies, more likely to have tough skeletons, too? Do their bodies look different?

“That might not be a good idea, but it sort of comes over from one field to another. And now I can spend some mornings poking around and seeing if anybody has written very much about predation in ants,” he says. “I think the answer is ‘not very much.’”

That question and many of his other ideas may be blind alleys, he says, but they keep his work interesting.

“For a little bit, I can enjoy thinking about what would an ant that was tougher so it didn’t get eaten look like,” he says. “I’ve got drawers and drawers in my brain full of those things that might amount to nothing. Usually they do. But every so often … .”

He trails off, but quickly adds, “I like other people’s stories about the ways that ideas and discoveries come together, as well. And that’s one of the reasons I do the writing. I love being able to see other people’s stories and to show people who don’t get a chance to do science how fun it can be to turn a stone and see something new or to even just stand at a white board and try, with some markers and students, to understand the world.”

So with endless scientific mysteries to unravel and books and articles to write, Dunn stays busy. But he also made time this year to devote to his family, taking a short leave of absence to tend to his newborn son, August (“Goose”), as well his daughter, Olivia (or “Lula”), who, he says, are much better at discovering things than he is.

“They are closer to the ground, closer, too, to the size of most of life on Earth,” he says. “Now we get to poke at ant colonies together. Though I’m sure, having spent so much time with biologists, they will both grow up to want to be bankers.”

He’s also writing a second book, Clean Living is Bad for You (And Other Consequences of Having Evolved in the Wild), which focuses on how our changing interactions with other species has affected our health and well-being.

In the end, when asked what he would like contribute in the long term, Dunn says he hopes that his musings will have helped shape some of tomorrow’s scientists and added to the public’s understanding of science and the world.

“So to look 50 years down the road, if I could think of what I would have liked to have done, I think I would have liked to have trained students who are able to think about the world in exciting ways and to have shown through my writing to a broader number of people the richness of the living world and what can still be discovered,” he says.

For Dunn’s indefatigable curiosity, it seems, there will always something new to explore around every corner and, indeed, in every conceivable place.

As he puts it in Every Living Thing, “We imagine we will colonize other planets, but we have barely probed this one. We have yet to find a lifeless place on Earth, and there are many places we have yet to check.

“The surface of Earth is covered in unstudied life. There are new species, unnamed species, living even in your own body. There is much here still.

“More than we now know, and more than we can yet imagine.”

Dee Shore

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