Student Stories: 'Ant whisperer' studies a bug's life

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Turns out, watching ants is actually pretty entertaining, according to Spencer Malloy. Good thing for him, because it was one of the most important parts of his job last summer.

The Penn State senior with a double major in agroecology and philosophy recently completed an internship at the University Park campus investigating how the presence of nematode parasites can affect carpenter ants.

"My adviser always was telling me about the importance of just watching the ants to set a baseline for behavioral studies," said Malloy, who hails from Levittown, Pa. "He joked that to become a good myrmecologist -- ant scientist -- you need to become the 'ant whisperer.'"

The nematodes in question get into the ants and negatively affect their development and behavior.

Malloy worked in the lab and did some independent reading for the project. "This project has a really diverse mix of literature and ideas surrounding it," he said.

"It is very much 'discovery' science where you have the privilege of just poking around an interesting scientific question and trying to read about the way organisms interact in the environment and how researchers have addressed the issue in the past."

In the lab, Malloy worked with people from different countries who were at different stages of their education in science. Outside the lab, they went on hikes in the woods looking for ant colonies and set up experiments to test questions related to ant behavior.

Malloy hopes that something will come from the research, but he felt it was rewarding just to be able to watch other scientists. They told him how they got into their jobs and how they discovered what kinds of science most interested them, and they gave him career advice.

"I think there's always time for lab work," Malloy said. "But for me, the real rewards of my internship came not from watching the ants, but from meeting people I could look up to."

For more information about the agroecology major in the College of Agricultural Sciences, go to


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Last Updated March 21, 2013