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Stories Behind the Science: The Depth of Community

April 14, 2021

Living organisms have continuous interactions and connections that contribute to life in and of itself. And a lot of the time, these interactions take place in ways that may not immediately come to mind. Dr. Joshua Grinath, a visiting assistant professor at Idaho State University, is studying ants,and they may be exhibiting connections in more ways than originally thought.  

As a child in a small Maryland town, Grinath’s playground was his backyard and the miles of farmland around his house. Being surrounded by wildlife and a community invested in nature, his love for biology started to grow. He was particularly drawn to ecology, which is the field of studying how organisms interact in the environment. A college education, however, was something that Grinath had to work hard for.

Grinath was a first-generation college student. He earned his undergraduate degree at Cornell University with an almost full financial scholarship. After careful thought into the path he was going to pursue, Grinath obtained a bachelor's degree in natural resource management with an emphasis in applied ecology. 

After his undergraduate degree, Grinath began working at Rocky Mountain Biological Lab in Colorado as a research assistant. This is where his research in ant interactions began. He studied mutualistic interaction, which is when two different species provide something beneficial for the other.

During his time as a research assistant, Grinath made some connections of his own- one of them being the mother of his future graduate school advisor. After hearing Josh’s research ideas, she recommended him to her son, a professor at Florida State University.  As a graduate student there, Grinath furthered his research in ant interactions. 

Due to the nature of ecological research, Grinath has faced numerous surprises while trying to complete his studies. One day, when he went to check on the ant nests he was studying, he found them torn apart. To his amazement, he figured out there was a bear causing the damage that had never previously been seen in that area for a decade.

To some, this damage could be a devastating occurrence, but Grinath decided that the addition of the bear gave him a new layer into the ant interactions he was previously studying. Originally, Grinath was looking at the interactions between ants, treehoppers, leafhoppers, and plant growth. Ants and treehoppers have a mutualistic relationship with one another, where the treehopper provides food for the ant in return for the ant’s protection. These interactions affect plant growth, as the more herbivores (treehoppers) there are being protected by omnivores (ants) the more plants get eaten. When the bear disrupted this ecosystem, Grinath decided to look at these interactions with another addition, a predator for the ants.

When Grinath moved to Pocatello with his wife and fellow biologist, Dr. Anna Grinath, to work at Idaho State University, he discovered some of the same species of ants he had previously studied were in Southeast Idaho as well. Grinath started focusing on how ant populations live after damage to their nests, looking specifically at ant reproduction rates and their physical size. In the future, Grinath also hopes to look at ant food foraging behaviors. 

Although Grinath invests immense amounts of time into his research, he also teaches multiple courses in the biology department at ISU and is currently mentoring his first graduate student. When Grinath was in his own graduate school career, he discovered that mentoring students was something that he felt was important and wanted to do. In his own lab now, he helps students not only come into their own as researchers but as mentors, teaching them the skills they will need to run their own research labs in the future. He wants students to feel a sense of community in science and promote diversity in STEM. 

 “It's important to me to help to increase that diversity and that inclusiveness of ideas that we really need to cultivate diversity because from that we're going to have a more productive idea machine, to which will grow science and our society in general,” he said. 

Grinath also wants people who wants to pursue science to know that it is okay to feel stupid when it comes to science. 

“A lot of people, I think, may abandon science because they feel stupid. And I feel stupid on a daily basis,” he said. “I think that's an important thing to convey to those entering an undergraduate degree and those entering graduate school, that as scientists, we have to become okay with feeling stupid. And it's not that we are stupid, it's that there's just so much there is that is unknown.” 

There is so much unknown information in the scientific community that can be discovered, and to those who are afraid to pursue a scientific career Grinath urges for one simple thing “It's okay that that we know so little and not to be caught by that. [Do not] give up.”


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