Dr Eliza Middleton
Scientist – Casual artist – Athlete
PhD insect ecology (The Australian National University)
Growing up in remote Australia, I developed a love for the natural world around me. With thousands of different species surrounding me, I couldn’t help but become enamored with ecology. I left the farm for the city, to begin my higher education at Macquarie University, studying Marine Science.
I completed my undergraduate degree and received a first class honours studying the effect of the quality of food on larval performance of the edible sea urchin, Tripneustes gratilla, as a member of the Marine Ecology Group, Macquarie University.
My love of the ocean has not diminished, but my love of the desert lead me to my first research position in Alice Springs. I studied the navigational behaviour of the Australian Red Desert Ant, Melophorus bagoti, their cluttered environment, full of landmark information, contributing to their navigation techniques. This began my fascination with insects, ants especially, and collective behaviour. After 2 years in the desert, I moved to a position at the Queensland Brain Institute, examining the flight and tracking of aggressive honeybees, and developing models based upon their behaviour, working closely with engineers. By understanding how such simple brains solve complex visuomotor tasks, we can apply this knowledge to machines, improving autonomous robot navigation. I loved working with such passionate researchers and developed a great appreciation for the development of bioinspired technology.
In 2010, I began my PhD in the Ecological Neuroscience lab at The Australian National University, examining the navigation, recruitment, foraging ecology and vision in the Australian Banded Sugar Ant, Camponotus consobrinus. I discovered that individual foragers know when they are lost and will immediately begin a predictable search pattern. Sugar ants recruit through tandem running, where an experienced ant that knows the location of a food source (the leader) leads a fellow nest mate (the recruit) to the food source. I showed that tandem recruits are not necessarily naive foragers. That is, those individuals involved in tandem recruitment as recruits, can be capable solitary foragers, even leaders of other tandem runs themselves, and can still be recruited into a tandem run to an unknown food location. I detailed the foraging ecology of the sugar ants, typified by a mass outbound movement to begin foraging for at dusk, and a following inbound movement to conclude foraging the following dawn. I also examined the visual systems of C. consobrinus, and showed histologically that they contain strongly developed dorsal rim areas, yet experimentally, they do not demonstrate reliance on this area for successful navigation.
After my PhD, I began my first post doctoral position in the Insect Behaviour and Ecology Lab, at the University of Sydney. Here, I am beginning to develop my computer modelling skills as I examine the resilience of social insect systems. Specifically, I am interested in how colonies cope with disturbance events and what leads to their resilience and success. I want to understand how social organisms and collective behaviour leads to beautiful solutions to complex problems and how we can model and learn from these techniques.
I am an amateur photographer, painter, sketch artist, creator. I love taking things from science and creating something beautiful and interpretive. I have also made a few scientific illustrations for publication, as well as gift cards, childrens colouring in books, and oil paintings.
I am passionate about maintaining a fit and healthy lifestyle, after spending many of my young adult years obese. I was naive when I left home, I didn’t have enough knowledge nor impetus to lead the active lifestyle I should have. As such, I gained a significant amount of weight during my undergraduate degree, partly due to poor mental health, poor diet, and partly due to limited exercise and a lack of perspective. Now, I’m fit, I’m healthy, and I’m trying to help others improve their lifestyles, to back themselves on new endeavours, to be patient and understanding with their minds, and to show that we are worth the self investment.