Seirian Sumner - Research Fellow
Seirian Sumner first came to ZSL in 2002 as a visiting researcher, four years later she’s been awarded a fellowship from the RCUK and seen her work feature on David Attenborough’s BBC series, ‘Life in the Undergrowth’.
Seirian Sumner Seirian’s interest in science and biology stems from an early age. After school she studied a zoology degree at university and soon after completed a PhD in behavioural ecology, which involved studying social wasps in the Malaysian jungle.
She then spent the next 4 years completing a post-doctoral research in Denmark and Panama, during which she further developed her current research interests on determining how social insect societies evolve.
Seirian’s focus on primitively eusocial insects is because they hold the key to how social evolution works. If we can understand the processes involved in simple societies we have a much better chance of figuring out how more complex societies evolved’.
Seirian uses a combination of behavioural observations on natural populations of social insects and combines her behavioural ecology field trips to the tropics with molecular analysis at the Institute of Zoology.
Her most recent project involves revolutionary technology using radio tags in order to track the movements of individual wasps between nests. It is the first time radio frequency ID tags have been used in this manner, and provides much more accurate, comprehensive data.
Her keen interest in insect communities brought her some well-deserved attention last year when David Attenborough’s acclaimed television series ‘Life in the Undergrowth’ contacted her to act as a consultant. The crew flew out to Panama to film the primitively eusocial wasps she was working on. Seirian was thrilled to see such fantastic, close-up footage of her wasps and even more delighted to see them on TV, as part of the Sociality episode in the series.
Science communication and working to make this more accessible to the general public is of real interest to Seirian, she explained:
‘Most people think of scientists as folk in white-coats who don’t know how to communicate to society at large. Yet, one of our most important tasks as scientists is to let the general public what we’re doing and why it’s so important. We’re now to get out there and inspire the public, particularly the younger generations who will be the scientific brains of the future.’
She has made a number of amateur films, explaining her work and what being a behavioural ecologist and evolutionary biologist involves. They have been successfully used not only within the scientific community but also as teaching tools at universities and local special interest groups. Next year, she’s organizing a National Science Week event at London Zoo.
‘The aim is to enthuse and educate school children about the interdisciplinary nature of science and reveal what life as a scientist is like, behind the scenes’
‘This is a great opportunity for me to combine my two passions, science and creativity, to communicate with the public and really get them involved with the subject of science, to prove that it’s not all about dusty old men in white lab coats.’