Adria LeBoeuf is Assistant Professor at the University of Fribourg's Department of Biology, Ecology, and Evolution, where she is a recipient of a SNSF PRIMA grant since 2019 and has just been awarded a prestigious Human Frontier Science Program (HSFP, 2022) collaborative grant. Her primary focus is the study of ants with the aim of understanding the nature of the fluid exchanges between these insects and the social role such sharing entail at the colony level, whether it be to selectively nourish, define a social role, or interact as a community. This interest in how organisms and individuals exchange and interact actually pervades all of Professor LeBoeuf's life and career. Indeed, if there is one thing that shines through when meeting her, it is the way she has made use of collaboration and exchange with the outside, whether it be between scientific disciplines or between researchers and the public, to advance research and better grasp the workings of complex metabolisms - and of society as a whole when such metabolic patterns are understood as metaphors for social interactions.
In this way, interdisciplinarity is a key element of Prof. LeBoeuf's academic trajectory to date: she was selected for a BA at the prestigious College of Creative Studies (University of California, Santa Barbara), which experience allowed her to put emphasis on her studies in biology while retaining other interests and imaginatively building bridges between disciplines. She then spent some time researching evolutionary psychology and molecular neuroscience, before her Ph.D at Rockefeller University (New York) led her to train in neuroscience and biophysics. She then pursued her postdoctoral research at the University of Lausanne and, as a Swiss Friends of Weizmann Postdoctoral Fellow, at the multidisciplinary Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. It is this career path marked by using all of these fields as vases communiquants, which makes her current research so unique.
Her choice of research subject is no coincidence either: with more than 14'000 species, ant societies are incredibly diverse in their levels of inequality and extents of division of labour within each community, evoking in some ways the different socio-political systems that rule human societies. One way this organisation and social interaction is expressed is through trophallaxis, the exchange of nutritious fluid from one ant to the other by mouth to mouth.
Professor LeBoeuf and her group have become world-leading experts in trophallaxis, providing the scientific community with a database with which to work on the subject, and numerous formative publications. However, what is most fascinating about discussing this with her is her integrative approach to the problem and the way she conceives of these colonies of social insects as complex metabolisms. These trophallactic exchanges are from this perspective a form of metabolic division of labour, where certain ants function much like human organs which do the work and provide the rest of the body with the requisite proteins and nutrients to thrive. The constant social exchange of fluid across the colony results in a kind of social circulatory system that mediates this complex metabolism. But some ants don’t use this behavior to pass around resources, and their colonies function perfectly well, just differently. The diversity of social configurations in the varied species of ants can tell us much about our own human societies.
Interdisciplinarity and exchange are also key to her latest project, which has just received a reputed HFSP (Human Frontier Science Programme) grant. These grants support novel research into fundamental biological problems, and have a strong interdisciplinary focus, requiring scientific exchanges across national and disciplinary boundaries. This three-year project, focusing on the evocatively-named Dracula ants, also involves as co-PIs Bas Teusink, professor of Systems Bioinformatics at VU Amsterdam, and Dr Brian Fisher, entomologist extraordinaire at the California Academy of Sciences. The larvae of many social insects are involved in a different form of trophallaxis, as they are fed bits of insect prey by adults but then return some form of nutritious fluids to the same adults. This “giving back” happens in different ways, and in the case of Dracula ants, the adults drink the larval blood (where they got their name). This process is harmless for the larva, but the question remains: what is being exchanged here, and what is the importance of this exchange at a colony level? This grant will permit to answer these questions, Dr Fisher providing his expertise on Dracula ants, and Prof. Teusink bringing with him the metabolic modelling resources to help uncover the functionality of this liquid exchange. The rigorous pluridisciplinary and international nature stipulated in the requirements of this HFSP grant led Professor LeBoeuf to branch out of her habitual network and the project is all the more innovative and exciting for it.
The principle that exchange and collaboration are key to research excellence therefore rules Professor LeBoeuf's research, but she also adopts this precept to further the academic careers of her peers and of early career scholars. Indeed, she created a Swiss branch of the popular international initiative “New PI Slack”, an international slack community of Assistant Professors who help each other through the challenges of successfully leading an independent project (email her for an invite if you are interested!). Similarly, she founded an improvisation group called The Catalyst in 2012. This brings together scientific researchers who use performance as a means of engagement with the public. While the benefits of such a venture in terms of public outreach are clear, Prof. LeBoeuf foregrounds what this exchange can bring to the researchers themselves: the “yes, and...” structure of improvisation fosters listening and collaboration between researchers; improvisation also teaches young scientists to build a coherent narrative, and helps them deal with failure when such a narrative breaks down.
Professor LeBoeuf's career is therefore grounded in deep, meaningful collaborations. This is also what the Research Promotion Service at the University of Fribourg wishes to foster: bringing you our expertise and collaborating with you to find the right third-party funding for your project. We would for instance be happy to assist you in an HSFP application. The deadlines for 2023 are not yet announced, but one should usually communicate a letter of intent by mid-spring, for a full proposal deadline in mid-autumn. Do not hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for any query on that regard.
Curious to know more about Professor LeBoeuf's research? Here are a few links and publications which might be of interest:
Sanja M Hakala, Marie-Pierre Meurville, Michael Stumpe, Adria C LeBoeuf, “Biomarkers in a socially exchanged fluid reflect colony maturity, behavior, and distributed metabolism”, elife 10:e74005, 2021.
Marie-Pierre Meurville, Adria C. LeBoeuf, “Trophallaxis: the functions and evolution of social fluid exchange in ant colonies”, Myrmecological News 31 (2021), pp. 1-30.