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Student Spotlight: Michael Smith

Michael Smith, Entomology

Cornell graduate student Michael Smith was recently recognized on the national stage when he won an IgNobel Prize for his publication studying the pain of bee stings. Read about his IgNobel-worthy research here.

What is your area of research?

I work on sociogenesis, how colonies of social insects change as they develop. I've been focusing on puberty in honey bee colonies, and how the individuals in the colony "know" that their colony can begin to invest in reproduction. I found that colonies of honey bees will only go through puberty once the colony has surpassed a threshold number of workers, but we don't know how workers detect the number of workers in her colony. 

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

I've always been keen on honey bees. I knew I wanted to work with bees, I just didn't know what aspect of their biology would become my research focus. I tried out a couple different projects when I first arrived, and this one stuck! 

Why is this research important?

Every living organism goes through puberty, whether its unicellular, multicellular, or a superorganism (you can think of a honey bee colony as a single superorganism made up of many individual bees). Coordinating development, such as puberty, is a problem that each level of biological organization has to tackle. Understanding how superorganisms coordinate between individuals, like cells within your body, is a way to see how evolution has solved similar problems in different ways. 

How has your background influenced your scholarship?

I did my undergraduate in molecular biology, working in Mark Rose's yeast lab. While I can't say that the transcription factor Kar4 has had much of an influence in the bee yards, the same ideas of doing research certainly apply. 

What else has influenced your thinking as a researcher or scholar?

My department, adviser, and fellow graduate students have had a huge impact on how I do research. I also had an awesome beekeeping mentor, Chris Adam, who taught me beekeeping while in high school.   

What other hobbies or activities do you enjoy in your spare time?

I have a couple gardens where I grow lots of different veggies, fruits, and flowers. Biking is great when there's no snow, and cross country skiing when there is. And cooking, lots of cooking and preserving foods. 

The first sign of puberty in a bee colony: the building of a drone cone. Photo provided.

Why did you choose Cornell?

I picked an adviser that I wanted to work with, Tom Seeley, so wherever he was at- that's where I was going! Luckily it was Ithaca. 

What’s next for you?

A bit more of grad school (seriously Tom, 10 years isn't nearly enough), and then hopefully a post-doc. I imagine I'll keep working with honey bees, but ya never know. 

Any advice for incoming graduate students?

There's a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?