Summer Centered: Charles Hale ‘17 Analyzes Ant Behavior in Germany
The biology major is conducting research on the genetic basis of the division of labor within ant colonies at Johannes Gutenberg-Universität.
Charles Hale ‘17 was surprised to discover that there was a lab in Germany that perfectly combined his fascinations with genetics and the behavior of ants. And this summer, thanks to the KINSC Summer Scholars program, he is getting to work there, conducting research under Ph.D. candidate Philip Kohlmeier at Johannes Gutenberg-Universität in Mainz. Hale’s lab group is attempting to discover what role a particular gene has on the division of labor within colonies of the ant species Temnothorax longispinosus to uncover some of the biological factors behind the collective intelligence of these superorganisms.
“While compelling in and of itself, studying these complex biological systems can more generally provide insight into the huge question in biology of what are the factors that result in a phenotype, and how do these factors interact with each other?” Hale says. “In a broad sense, my project seeks to shed a tiny sliver of light onto this immense question.”
He spent several weeks in June collecting ant colonies with his labmates at the Huyck Nature Preserve in Rensselaerville, N.Y. Then, after keeping the ants alive on a diet of Nutter Butter crumbs and ham, they transported the colonies overseas. Since then they have been using RNA interference to disrupt the expression of a particular gene that is thought to determine the ants’ circadian rhythm, and videotaping the colonies to find out whether the ants switch roles within the colony as a result of the interference. To enable the comparison, Hale must first label the ants with colored wire according to their role in the colony before he runs the experiments.
“It’s a bit like tying tiny pairs of shoelaces under a microscope using tweezers, while the shoes are moving all over the place,” Hale says. “It’s definitely the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in a biology lab!”
The biology major’s work at Haverford so far has been heavily focused on molecular and cellular biology, so he values the opportunity he’s had this summer to delve into other areas of biological research. Additionally, his behavioral project comes with a major fieldwork component, which creates a bridge between the lab and the natural world and “makes the research feel more real,” he says.
Though it has been a lot of work, Hale has appreciated the experience of living and working in a foreign country. Not only is he assured of his ability to realize his plan to travel professionally in the future, but he has also emerged in the center of some of the most pressing international political and social issues of our day.
“The refugee crisis has helped make for a pretty intense political climate, and I’ve heard a lot of conflicting viewpoints debating the merits of Germany’s policies compared to U.S.’s immigration and asylum policies,” Hale says. “Having spent parts of the past winter and spring breaks in Arizona studying and working on border issues through the CPGC, being here in this political moment has added another dimension to the experience.”
—Katya Konradova '19
"Summer Centered" is a series exploring our students' Center-funded summer work.