Zach Coto, a Biology PhD candidate at Boston University, will return to Oakwood to present our Annual Herzog Lecture on Friday May 3, 2019. A graduate of the class of 2010, Zach shared his journey since leaving Oakwood and gave us insight into his upcoming lecture, “Tiny Brains and Huge Societies: The Evolution of Metabolism in a System of Sterility, Division of Labor, and Collective Intelligence.”
After Oakwood, I began pursuing a Bachelor’s degree related to social science at Goucher College in Baltimore. The following spring, I decided to shift my academic focus from social science to biological science with a hope to eventually focus on insect social behavior. This led me to return to New York and attend classes at SUNY Orange County Community College in preparation for and eventual acceptance to SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) in Syracuse. I spent about a year as a student at SUNY ESF, first majoring in Conservation Biology and then majoring in Biotechnology while briefly working in a plant propagation laboratory. I was still unsatisfied with my academic trajectory and so I left SUNY-ESF to return home to New York where I began working part-time in a local pet shop. There, I could use my biological knowledge to assist customers with caring for exotic animals.
My interest in insect sociality remained, but I wanted to focus on the molecular mechanisms underlying social behavior (for example, pheromone communication), while incorporating this into studying the emergent properties of insect societies as a whole. In 2014 I enrolled at SUNY New Paltz with a major in Molecular Biology through which I developed an understanding of molecular interactions and development. Meanwhile, I gained a basic knowledge of ecology and I maintained a focus on social insects through my work on insect tool use. While at SUNY New Paltz, I was accepted as a 2015 Summer Undergraduate Research Fellow at Rockefeller University in NYC. At Rockefeller, I was able to see first-hand the real-time application of the scientific method. This included seeing the development of the first genetically modified ants using the now popular CRISPR technique. Furthermore, I was familiarized with insect neurobiology, immunohistochemistry and developed a proficiency in micro-dissection. From this experience, I decided to focus my aspirations for graduate work on the neurobiological mechanisms underlying insect sociality.
I graduated from SUNY New Paltz with a B.S. in Molecular Biology and was accepted into the Biology PhD program at Boston University in the fall of 2016 to work in Dr. James Traniello’s Sociobiology Laboratory. Today, I study how the evolution of social behavior relates to the evolution of the brain, with a focus on the dynamics of energy allocation at different biological levels (from sub-cellular to social) using ant colonies as model organisms. A fundamental question for our lab and sociobiology more broadly is whether increasingly complex societies require individuals who are themselves increasingly complex and/ or who have increasingly more cognitive investment. Furthermore, we seek to determine to what extent conclusions about social evolution can be generalized across species and different levels of biological organization. I hope to make contributions to answering these questions as they get to the heart of today’s popular concerns such as whether we can maintain large, cohesive and peaceful societies, what are the limits of human cognitive and social potential and what exactly we are doing as we develop technology and artificial intelligence networks that are meant to simulate our cognitive and social dynamics.