Insect Research Leads Biologist to New Insight into the Value of Social Networks

Phoebe Cook, who studies animal behavior and social networks, will graduate this spring with a Ph.D. in biology from UVA's Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.

Phoebe Cook, who studies animal behavior and social networks, will graduate this spring with a Ph.D. in biology from UVA's Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. (photo by Molly Angevine)

Doing research is often the easiest part of getting a graduate degree. For many students who come to graduate school hoping to secure a place in the highly competitive world of academia, the harder part by far can be finding a healthy work-life balance and a supportive network. However, in an environment where the expectations and the stakes are often extraordinarily high. Phoebe Cook discovered that those challenges can also be opportunities.

Coming to UVA’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences to pursue a Ph.D. in biology was like coming home, said Cook, who is graduating this May.

Raised in rural Vermont, Cook wanted to make a change when it was time to choose a college, so she accepted an offer from Swarthmore College in Philadelphia where she pursued interests in biology, education and gender studies. She loved biology, and after taking a course in evolution, she knew she had found her path. When a faculty member invited her to take part in a summer research experience at the UVA’s Mountain Lake Biological Station in remote Giles County, Virginia, she accepted.

“I loved it so much,” Cook said, “when it came time to pick a Ph.D. program, I knew I wanted to come back.”

As a graduate student, Cook’s work has been exceptional. She has published several papers in high-profile academic journals for her work with the forked fungus beetle, a small insect common throughout eastern North America that spends its life on the fungus found on rotting logs.

“They don’t seem that interesting, but they actually have more complicated social lives than you would think,” said Cook, who is interested in how social networks evolve in the animal world and why they matter.

Using a series of wooden boxes at Mountain Lake Biological Station, Cook observes the patterns of interactions of groups of beetles, mapping the connections they make with each other to determine which of the beetles are more social and which prefer to keep to themselves. She’s also interested in whether those roles remain consistent when individual beetles are moved from one box to another and in how the personalities of individual beetles affect the health and success of the networks to which they belong.

Her research has led her to conclude that sociability, rather than being shaped by their environment, is a trait unique to individual beetles and that the personalities of those beetles play a large part in influencing how their networks behave even when those individuals are introduced to a new community.

It can be difficult to apply her findings to other animal populations, or even human ones, but they do suggest that while highly social individuals play a bigger role in spreading problems like disease throughout a population, they can also be very effective at spreading useful information and at helping their networks take advantage of the resources available to them.

Cook also noted that the beetles’ personalities change over time to the extent that beetles tend to become less social as they age.

“That’s a pattern we see in a lot of species,” Cook said. “We see that in humans. We see it in chimpanzees, and so, it’s kind of surprising to see it in beetles as well. It’s exciting to think that there might be some commonality there.”

Finding an Antidote to Grad School’s Challenges

Before Cook had the data she needed to publish her findings and complete her dissertation, she was faced with a long list of obstacles. Her original research proposal didn’t last a year.

“Every summer that I’ve gone up to the station, and just as I was about to start, something has happened that’s blown everything up, and I’ve had to go to my advisor to come up with something entirely different,” Cook said. “I don’t think I have accomplished a single one of the aims that was in my original dissertation proposal.”

But for many students who reach the graduate level, problems like those are par for the course.

“That’s the fun part,” Cook said. “Those are solvable problems.”

She spent a lot of time alone, however, struggling with the anxiety of wondering if the research she was doing was meaningful and worthwhile. Conducting research at the Mountain Lake Biological Station several hours from Grounds also meant that she didn’t have access to some of the support services most students take for granted.

To cope with the stress she was feeling, she began to look for opportunities to build a strong support network of her own. She explored activism and advocacy opportunities by working with a student group called UVA Survivors which works with the University’s Title IX coordinator to help serve the needs of community members who have experienced sexual violence. She also helped found a group called the Graduate Recruitment Initiative Team, or GRIT, which works with some of UVA’s scientific doctoral programs to promote policies that will help them recruit and retain a more diverse student body while helping to connect those students with the wide range of support services that UVA has to offer.

The isolation she felt also gave her the impetus to join a local search and rescue team.

“I was sitting alone in my house working on these abstract problems about beetles’ social lives when there are these really horrible problems going on in the world,” Cook said. “One day I went for a drive to Richmond to clear my head, and I was sitting by the river when a man slipped and hit his head on a rock and went underwater. I was the only one who saw it happen, and I was able to get him out, and he was fine, but after that, I had a moment where I realized that this is what I need to be doing. This is what’s missing in my life.”

With no prior experience, she reached out to the Blue Ridge Mountain Rescue Group, a student-run organization based at UVA and immersed herself so deeply in the work that this year she was chosen to be on its board of directors.

“The biggest thing that I did for my mental health was get involved in a group that was meeting in person, getting outdoors, learning new skills, and actually helping people who are having some of the worst days of their lives,” Cook said.

“It’s really the opposite of a Ph.D. which is about sitting alone, thinking abstract thoughts and writing,” Cook said. “And it’s been really useful to me to have something to do that’s different from that.”

Training to Teach

Although the focus of a graduate education in the sciences is largely on research, many Ph.D.s go on to positions in the academic world that involve teaching, and Cook’s undergraduate work in education inspired her to explore a variety of opportunities at UVA to improve her skills in the classroom.

She mentored undergraduates who shared her interest in biology. She worked as a classroom consultant for graduate teaching assistants for whom English is a second language, and she taught computer programming to other science students. She also participated in Tomorrow’s Professor Today, a professional development program offered by UVA’s Center for Teaching Excellence for graduate students preparing for the transition from student to academic professional. Cook credits the program with helping her to win her department’s distinguished teaching fellowship, which gave her the opportunity to design and teach her own class. The experience may also have helped her win UVA’s All-University Graduate Teaching Award.

When Cook reached her final year as a graduate student, the idea of combining the work she’d done as an educator and as an advocate for students grew more compelling. She had been considering a number of career options to follow after Final Exercises, but the one she chose was an opportunity to explore the field of educational development as an educational consultant at Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation in Pittsburgh, which she’ll begin this summer. The opportunity will give her a chance to explore new ways to improve classroom experiences for students of all kinds.

Butch Brodie, B.F.D. Runk Professor in Botany with the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences’ Department of Biology and Director of the Mountain Lake Biological Station, said Cook could have done anything she wanted to do; he wasn’t surprised by her choice to pursue a career in educational development instead of research.

“I think she sees herself as someone who can help more people by helping other people teach in a more inclusive way,” Brodie said. “She’s really passionate about accessibility issues and is a very vocal advocate for the need to make our teaching more inclusive. It’s great to be able to recruit a more diverse group of students, but it doesn’t do a lot of good if you’re not retaining them by listening to their experiences and modifying the way that we as faculty mentors can help with those challenges. Phoebe has been really strong in getting us to think about that.”

Cook’s impact on her fellow students has been equally as significant. Taylor Nystrom, a graduate student in evolutionary biology and a colleague of Cook’s, said that Cook is the model citizen of an inclusive academic environment.

“Phoebe’s been a very supportive part of her own social network and her community, and that’s something I really admire about her,” Nystrom said. “When you interact with her, she gives you a feeling that you can say whatever you need to say. If you need support from her in some way or if you need someone to vent to, she just listens without judgment, and she’s always willing to share what’s worked for her and the things that have been positive influences for her. She has also had an incredible impact on a departmental level and at the University level.”

Like Brodie, Nystrom wasn’t surprised by Cook’s decision to leave her research behind to follow a new path with her Ph.D.

“Being able to create a safe environment for individuals to learn about science, to learn about this thing that we care about so much is just as important to the scientific community,” Nystrom said. “What gets overlooked is that you could do amazing research and discover great things, but it will be meaningless if the broader community can’t understand what it means and can’t appreciate it. So helping teachers create an environment where science and other subjects can be shared and learned and understood in a way that’s safe and supportive … I think it’s just as important as doing great research.”