Kennesaw State professor’s work on insects attracts attention

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Clint penick

KENNESAW, Georgia (October 8, 2021) – Earlier this year, Clint Penick’s voice floated across the airwaves of NPR and the BBC. His words have also appeared in many print and online media.

The Kennesaw State Assistant Professor of Biology wrote an article on a new discovery about ants – that they can shrink and grow back their brains – which appeared in the prestigious scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. It s ‘is found in virtual discussions with print and broadcast journalists from around the world, explaining the ability of Indian jumping ants to regenerate brain tissue.

In addition to his radio appearances, articles on Penick’s research have appeared in the New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic, and the Atlantic, among other periodicals.

It’s all in a day’s work for Penick, who arrived at KSU in 2019. Despite all his success as an evolutionary ecologist specializing in the study of social insects like ants and bees, he considers himself a storyteller who has a scientific background. He fully embraces the teaching component of his work, whether it is the readers of a nationally distributed magazine or the students in his classes. At every opportunity, Penick draws on his love of explaining scientific findings and making them relevant to a wide audience.

“I was motivated more by my interest in research than anything else, but what i learned along the way are research projects that fascinate me the most are those that I can tell other people about, ”says Penick. “So science communication has been a big part of my career. And it involves teaching.

Research on insect societies

Penick’s research examines the success of social insects and the societies they form, guessing what humans can learn from hundreds of millions of years of insect evolution. In his laboratory at Kennesaw State’s Department of Ecology, Evolution and Biology of Organisms, Penick and his team focus on how social insects fight disease, cope with climate change, build elaborate nests, and how they have become so dominant in our cities.

“Insects have learned to dominate our cities, partly because of their social nature. There is a huge benefit to being social, so we are studying the downstream effects of sociality and how it determines the ecological success of ants and bees, ”he says. “Understanding how organisms evolved to cooperate and form societies is a major question in biology, and beyond insects, it dig in who we are as humans.

A parallel between Penick’s work on social insects and humans’ own challenges as a social species is the way they deal with disease. Living in dense groups increases the risk of disease transmission, so social agencies must develop public health strategies to control disease. Penick points out that while humans have lived in groups for thousands of years, ants and bees have been doing so for hundreds of millions of years, which means they are much more accustomed to dealing with pathogens. One of Penick’s current studies focuses on how ants produce and use their own antibiotics, which gives humans plenty of opportunities to learn from their six-legged friends.

Clint penick

Cultivate an interest in science

Originally majoring in Creative Writing at Florida State University, Penick added a Biology major after taking a semester to hike the two-thousand-mile-long Appalachian Trail. The walk revealed that he wanted a job that allowed him to be outdoors, and a major in biology allowed him to connect his outdoor interests with a career in research.

As an undergraduate student at the State of Florida, Penick studied under Professor Walter Tschinkel, one of the foremost experts on fire ants. Penick’s main thesis focused on why fire ants build mounds – a surprisingly unusual trait in ants – and this inspired a lifelong fascination with ants and other insects. Tschinkel’s insistence on working in the field, combined with an engaging teaching style, rekindled Penick’s desire to be a scientist.

“Scientific discoveries are something you learn in the classroom, but you can’t make these discoveries yourself unless you walk into a professor’s lab, ”says Penick. “What was a game-changer for me, it was having the opportunity to ask a question that no one has ever asked before, then develop a study to try and answer it. Once you have crossed the threshold from learning science to practicing science, you feel the excitement of stepping into the unknown. It was then that my passion for research has started.

Penick graduated from the State of Florida in 2005 with a double degree in Biology and Creative Writing. He got his doctorate. at Arizona State in 2012, writing his dissertation on the development of ant queens. Most of his thesis work took place in the laboratory, so he decided to seek a postdoctoral position that would bring him back outside. This led him to a four-year stint as a postdoctoral researcher at the State of North Carolina in a lab that focused on the impact of climate change and urbanization on insects. He then returned to the State of Arizona as a Biologist-in-Residence at the Biomimicry Center, an interdisciplinary research center that linked research in biology to emerging challenges in engineering and sustainability.

Still, Penick knew his best opportunity to engage audiences and inspire the next generation of scientists would be as a professor. After two years at the Biomimicry Center, he returned to Kennesaw State, bringing with him his compelling and relevant research and hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding.

At the cutting edge of technology

Since arriving at KSU he has continued to research and publish prolifically, culminating in April with his article in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. He has also taught introductory courses focusing on evolution and the ecology, which he says is the first place students catch the spark. for biology.

Penick also expanded his lab to include students with backgrounds in engineering and visual arts, which led to design projects involving visual representations of various aspects of insects. An ongoing project is funded by NASA, using sustainable honeycomb design to build stronger spacecraft.

This cutting-edge research takes place in and around the KSU campus, with KSU students at the forefront. Penick admits he didn’t know much about Kennesaw State until he came to interview in 2019, but he sensed the buzz of a new R2 institution, a group of like-minded young faculty members and d ‘a growing campus rich in new perspectives.

There is so much growth and new research taking off, and there are a lot of people who are also passionate about involving students in research, ”he says.Compared to other universities, there is just a lot of excitement in Kennesaw State.

– Dave Shelles

Photos of Jason Getz


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A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its nearly 43,000 students. With 11 colleges on two Atlanta metro campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the Georgia university system. The university’s vibrant culture, diverse population, strong global ties, and entrepreneurial spirit attract students from across the country and around the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral (R2) research institute, which places it among an elite group of just 6% of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information visit kennesaw.edu.


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