Mandyam Veerambudi Srinivasan (Srini) was born in Poona, India in 1948. Srini's early interests in making transistor radios with his dad led to an undergraduate degree in engineering at Bangalore University (1963-1968), where he learnt the many facets of engineering. Srini then completed a Master's degree in Electronics at the Indian Institute of Science (1968-1970) and travelled to Yale University in the US to complete a PhD in Engineering and Applied Science at (1971-1976), studying fly vision.
Srini's multidisciplinary research strengths led to him being offered a postdoctoral position at the Research School of Biological Sciences at the Australian National University (ANU) in 1978.Srini worked at the ANU for five years researching the electrophysiological basis of insect vision. In 1982, Srini secured an Assistant Professorship at the Institute of Zoology in the University of Zurich. There he learnt a new skill that was to prove extremely important to his future research - how to train and work with honeybees. In 1985 Srini returned to ANU to set up an interdisciplinary research lab which focused on unravelling how bees use their vision to successfully navigate through narrow tunnels and make precise landings. Srini was elected to the fellowship of the Australian Academy of Science in 1995 and to the UK Royal Society in 2001. He was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal in 2003 and the Prime Minister's Prize for Science in 2006.
In 2007 he moved to the Queensland Brain Institute and the School of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering at the University of Queensland where he is Professor of Visual Neuroscience. His research focuses on vision, perception and cognition in animals with simple nervous systems, and on how these might be used in machine vision and robotics.
Interviewed by Professor Graham Farquhar on 21 November 2011.
My name is Graham Farquhar and I’m from the Research School of Biology at the Australian National University. Today I’m interviewing Professor Mandyam Veerambudi Srinivasan, whom I know as Srini.
Srini, can you tell us about the origin of your name?
Hello, Graham. First of all, thank you very much for having me here to do this; it’s a real pleasure and a real
honour. ‘Srinivasan’ is my own name, but it is used as my surname. In the Indian vernacular, my full name, enunciated properly, would be ‘Mandyam Veerambudi Srinivasan’. ‘Mandyam’ is the sort of town that our forefathers originated from; ‘Veerambudi’ is the actual family name; and finally ‘Srinivasan’ is my own name. So it sort of geographically and progressively narrows it down from town to family to individual. It’s very scientific, a bit like the old German postal system.
Srini, you were born in Poona, I think. Can you tell us about that?
That’s right. I was born in Poona, which is close to Bombay—or Mumbai, as they say nowadays—and that was because my father was posted all over the country. He was in the defence accounts department and that required him to work in various locations. I suppose that my own conception as well was a bit of an accident because, in 1947, when India gained independence was split in to India and Pakistan, my father was trapped on the other side of the border. It was a very dangerous time and they had sort of given him up for gone. Eventually one day he just walked into Madras to be reunited with my mother. I was the product of that reunion, so I have a lot to be thankful for.
Srini, where did you grow up?
My early childhood was spent moving around the country—Poona, Calcutta and Delhi. But finally my dad
managed to get an appointment in Bangalore, where he finally retired. Most of my schooling was done in Bangalore.
Bangalore; that is where Raman did his spectroscopy, I think.
That’s exactly right. In fact, I got married right across from Raman’s residence and that was quite an honour for me. Bangalore, by the way, in the local vernacular, is called ‘Bendakaluru’, which means the ‘city of baked beans’.
Can you tell us more about that?
Well, I guess that baked beans are a big product there in that part of the country. Curiously, it turned out that Shane Warne, when he was playing a cricket match in Bangalore—this was Australia versus India—ran out of baked beans—in Bangalore!—and he had them flown in from Australia. Talk about carrying coals to Newcastle!
What was your early school life and family life like?
Really, I was almost like an only child because my older brothers had already grown up and left. As I mentioned, I was almost an accident that happened towards the end of my father’s career.
My older brothers were much older than me—they had left home—so I grew up as an only child in Bangalore. They put me through one of the really good schools there, the Bishop Cotton Boys High School. That was really good because we had a very good grounding in English which you usually don’t get if you go to a local school. So I was very fortunate in that way.
What shaped your interest in academia?
I suppose that I was generally curious. I was not very good academically when I was really young in school. I suppose what really triggered my interest was that a friend of mine was into electronics as a hobby. In those days, building transistor radios was a big thing and he got me hooked on that. My dad took an interest in this too. We would spend long evenings at home, my dad and I, soldering circuit boards and putting transistors on them. Then we got our first radio to work, so that was a big thrill.
So you were teaching each other.
Yes, it was a real thrill. I’m so glad that my dad did that for me because, if he hadn’t, who knows what would have happened?
Who were your mentors in science and in other parts of your life?
Well, I’ve been fortunate to have had some very good mentors. With my undergraduate training, for example, which was done in Bangalore University, I was fortunate enough to have had some of the best teachers that I have ever had in my entire career. In electrical engineering, circuits and so on there were some amazing people, including Dr Ramakrishna who was truly amazing. Then, of course, as I went to various universities and had various appointments I had a series of mentors, like Professor Gary Bernard at Yale, Professor Adrian Horridge and Professor Allan Snyder here at the ANU, Professor Rüdiger Wehner in Zurich and so on.
Following that path, can you tell me what life was like as an undergraduate in Bangalore?
Life was good; it was very busy. The undergraduate course in engineering was a fiveyear course, so you spent the first three years learning very basic principles of engineering. This was everything—well, in those days, when you said ‘everything’, it meant really three different branches of engineering: mechanical engineering; civil engineering, which is building structures like bridges and so on; and electrical engineering. We did the whole gamut, including some really hard work like going to a foundry, putting a piece of iron into a furnace, whacking on it with a big sledgehammer and getting it true and then filing it down to a proper plane—all manual labour. It seemed terrible at the time, but now I think it gives you a better appreciation of how these machines work and what can be done these days. So I am really glad that I had that sort of training.
Quite apart from that, there was this national cadet corps. India and Pakistan were at odds with each other and India and China were at odds with each other. So we had this thing that we had to do every evening, which was a national cadet corps. We had to basically march in the hot sun from three o’clock to five o’clock every afternoon. It was a busy time.
The one other thing I want to add is that slide rules had just come into fashion then. That was very good because a slide rule trains your mind to think of the order of magnitude of the answer that you are trying to get when you are multiplying or dividing two numbers. That is very useful and it is something that is gone now with people who play with calculators. They have no idea of what kind of number to expect from the result; they just look for the result on the calculator. That basic training with the slide rule was very useful, I think.
What made you move to Yale for your PhD?
Well, when I did my masters—and this was at the Indian Institute of Science—it was in electrical engineering. But towards the end of that my professor suggested that for a research project I do something that combined biology and engineering. So I ended up investigating the human eye as a target tracking control system when it tracks a moving target. It’s a nice servo-mechanism that you can model as a feedback control system. I got into that and that sounded very interesting and so I thought, ‘Maybe I will try and pursue that later on.’
The reason for getting to Yale in the first place was that there was a professor from there who happened to visit the Indian Institute of Science on sabbatical and he gave a couple of courses which many of us took, including myself. I guess that I did reasonably well in the course and he suggested that maybe I should apply to Yale to do a PhD. So that is how that came about.
What was life like at Yale at that time?
Oh, it was quite a culture shock. In those days just getting out of India was a major drama. Getting a visa to leave the country was not easy. Then, even when you finally got permission to leave, you could leave with only eight US dollars in your pocket; that was the amount of foreign exchange that the government would let you take. It was touch and go. But fortunately my brother was already there—he had been there for many years; he was on the faculty at Cornell—so he was able to help me out initially. But certainly it was a culture shock in many ways.
What cultural differences were there between India and the Western world at that time?
Well, the appearance of people, for example. When you go overseas from a place like India everyone looks alike; it’s really hard to tell them apart. I remember getting out of the plane at JFK when we landed and going on this little bus that took us to the terminal. There was this blond haired person who was standing and I was seated. So, being fresh out of India, I was fairly chivalrous and I got up to make room for this person to sit; but it turned out that it was a young man. It was very awkward for me to explain myself then. That was one thing.
The other thing was, of course, the way in which people treated their professors. Most of them were on a first-name basis. Everybody else would call my supervisor ‘Gary’, but I could never get myself to do that, having come from such a different culture. So I would call him ‘Dr Bernard’ right until the very end when we had a little bit of a heated discussion about some scientific aspect. Then he said, ‘Srini, if you’re going to speak to me like this you might as well call me Gary,’ and from then on it was Gary.
What made you move from the US to Australia?
Oh, this is very interesting. When I was about to finish my PhD, I was looking around for places to go and do a postdoctoral fellowship. I was very fortunate in that Professor Allan Snyder happened to be visiting Yale on a Guggenheim Fellowship and he suggested that maybe I look into the possibility of coming to Canberra. I had read about his work, which I admired a lot; and I had also read about Professor Adrian Horridge’s work, which I really admired a lot. So I applied and Allan, in his typical way, said ‘Srini, don’t say that the idea came from me; just write to Adrian Horridge inquiring about this and he will come to me and say, “Look, we’ve got this guy; shall we hire him?”’, and then he would say yes. And that is what happened!
What did it feel like to come to Australia? It was 1978, wasn’t it?
Yes, it was 1978 and it was quite daunting because noone knew anything about Australia in those days. So I went to the Yale co-op book store to see if I could find anything about Australia, and there wasn’t a single book. My wife and I said, ‘What are we letting ourselves in for?’. So she went into a moment of panic, went to a department store and bought stainless steel cookware—you know, pots and pans—because we weren’t sure if we could get them in Australia. Also, I went and bought myself what in those days was a fancy programmable pocket calculator—again, because I wasn’t sure whether you would have computers to work with in the lab in Australia. But to our surprise, when we came here, we found that this lab over here at the Research School of Biological Sciences with Professor Adrian Horridge was much better—infinitely better—than the one we had at Yale. So we never unpacked those pots and pans and I never used my calculator.
Why did you choose this particular research field?
It was a series of accidents. What happened was that, when I went to Yale, I was looking for someone who was working in the area of the interface between biology and engineering. It turned out that the only person there who was doing this kind of work was a man by the name of Gary Bernard, who also was an engineer. He was on the faculty at MIT but got sort of seduced by biology and was attracted to come to Yale.
He was interested in studying ‘bug eyes’ and was working on butterfly vision, so I decided that it sounded interesting. In those days we didn’t worry about what was the best way for me to get a job or to pursue a successful career; you just picked things because they sounded interesting. So that is what I did.
And that was true for all of the moves?
I think so. When we came to Australia—that was a golden period, by the way, just amazing—working at the Research School of Biological Sciences, I learned how to do electrophysiology, which I hadn’t done before. It was really a wonderful time; there were lots of very good people around.
But unfortunately this position was a temporary position; it was a contract position that ran for only five years. I guess that the ANU in those days had a policy of short-term, high turnover appointments. It was really good for the university because there was a good turnover of young people coming through but the people themselves had to leave after five years unless there was a permanent position available. But, as luck would have it, already a couple of years before I had to leave I was given an opportunity to move to Zurich where I knew Professor Rüdiger Wehner, who had given me a kind of invitation to come there when the time was right.
And for how long did you stay in Zurich?
In Zurich I spent about three and a half, nearly four years.
So you had to master another language.
That’s right. That was quite a challenge. When I knew that I was going to Zurich, I buckled down and took a couple of semesters of introductory German here at the ANU. That was quite helpful. German is quite a nice language because it is quite scientific and not like English, where everything has an exception. Once you know the rules, you can speak it fairly well. But that was quite a challenge. In a way, it was slightly related to my mother tongue because the verb goes at the end of the sentence, just like it does in Tamil, for example. So it didn’t seem totally foreign to me and that was a good experience. I had to lecture in German, which was hard for me as well as for the students, but it was very nice. Didactically, German academics are very good. What I really picked up in Germany was the way to create slides and present them in a clear way. I really had to be thankful to Rüdiger Wehner for that. That is a big tradition there. In fact, when I first started, you had to give a kind of introductory lecture called the Antrittsvorlesung. It’s where this new professor is entering the university and giving a talk and it has to be in German and the slides have to be perfect. That had to be done pretty soon after I arrived. It was a very nerve-racking experience, but it set the stage for what they expected.
Was this in Hoch Deutsch or was it in Schweizerdeutsch?
Hoch Deutsch—all the lectures are given in Hoch Deutsch, but the common everyday conversation happens in Schweizerdeutsch. That is a problem again because Swiss German is almost a completely different language. So, when you’re living in Zurich, you are trying to learn two languages at the same time and it’s not easy.
How many languages do you speak?
Fluently, none! Well, apart from English, my mother tongue is Tamil, which I can only speak; I used to be able to read and write it, but that has gotten a bit rusty now. There’s German. There’s Hindi, which used to be the national language. That was my second language in school, but it’s a bit broken now. So it’s not that many languages—oh, there’s the local language of the state where I grew up in Bangalore — Kannada, which is another language.
But you also conversed in both Schweizerdeutsch and Hoch Deutsch?
Schweizerdeutsch, yes, a little bit. I could never get the pronunciation quite right.
How did it come about that you came back to Australia again?
Switzerland was lovely and everything was great, but we really took a fond liking for Australia. I should mention that the first time we came to Australia, which was in 1978, we came in on this Qantas flight and I took an instant liking to Vegemite. You either love it or you hate it—and I really loved it.
So Jaishree, my wife, and I were really very keen to get back to Australia if we ever had the opportunity. As luck would have it, one of the people in the same department where I was before—Simon Laughlin—moved to Cambridge and that position became available. That was advertised, I was invited to apply for it and fortunately I was able to get it. That is how I came back.
Do you have other research interests or hobbies?
Nothing terribly exciting, I’m afraid; I don’t have much of a life—I mean, just physical activity to keep myself barely going, like swimming and bicycling and so on.
But something I have always wanted to do and which I might do some time is get into a bit of philosophy, because that is something that I have wanted to do but I’ve never had a chance to do it. But, at the moment, I can’t say that I have much of an outside life.
Did you meet your wife at Yale?
No, not really. Our wedding was more of a traditional Indian wedding, an Indian kind of marriage. What happened was that we had known each other’s families ever since our childhoods and their family would come to our place and our family would go to their place. But I had never actually thought of her as a partner until much later when I was, in fact, at Yale and just thinking about things back at home. So on one of those trips back home to visit, maybe in a moment of weakness, I proposed—and that was that.
What sort of influence on your life and career has your wife had?
My wife has been really very inspirational. She’s an artist, a ceramicist. So, through her, I have come to know a lot of other people whom I normally would not have known, because I tend to be a bit of a loner. I am not a very social person, so her coming into my life has made a big difference. Quite apart from that, she has been extremely supportive. She has moved around with me, no matter where I have gone, and managed to still do something of her own work, which has kept her happy. I have got a lot to be thankful to her for. She has also driven me and pushed me to doing things which I normally wouldn’t do or would be a bit concerned about doing, like being a little pushier. That comes from her and not from me.
Seeking grant funding and winning golden handcuffs
What other organisations have you worked for?
I am currently with the University of Queensland; I’ve been there for the past five years.
I suppose that it is a slightly different scene. It is a very modern building and a modern university with a sort of more modern outlook. I am not sure whether everything modern is all that great, but I think in life things are moving that way where the main thing is to get as much funding as possible and so on.
What were the sources of your funding and how did they come about?
When I was at the Australian National University it was essentially block funding. In fact we were prohibited from applying to the ARC. That of course changed in the last few years while I was at the ARC.
The ARC was very helpful with funding. There was a Federation Fellowship that came from the ARC. By the way, I am not a very aggressive fund seeker and maybe that is a deficiency which I never did—and probably never will—overcome. But usually I have been fortunate in that the funding has
sort of come to us, especially at the Defense Department in the US. They got to know about our work, so they came around and said, ‘Hey, we’ve heard about your work; would you like to apply to do this work?’ Quite often that was—I suppose you could call it—‘easy money’. It involves writing a little expression of interest—two pages—and, if they are happy with the project, the money is made available.
DARPA funds very substantial grants that way. But, of course, you are held to do what you say you will do.
Someone described it as a sort of golden handcuffs: you are handcuffed, but the handcuffs are of gold.
What is nice is that these organisations usually don’t restrict publication; in fact,
they actually want you to publish work. That was actually very good. They are quite interested in basic research as well. A lot of it was definitely not weapons and not even aircraft; it was basic research looking at learning principles in bees and looking at navigation principles in bees. If they eventually find out something that we don’t realise and use it, I can’t help that. But certainly it seemed very much pure science driven.
Could you talk a little about linking your knowledge of vision with robotics?
All of these have been sort of accidental observations. In fact, it was not something that we set out to do. That is what is amazing about science, it’s so serendipitous. That is why I think we shouldn’t even plan to do something; you should just get your hands dirty, so to speak, and see what happens. For example, we were curious to see how bees fly safely through narrow passages. We had them coming into our lab. We found that they came through a hole in the window and we found that, when they flew through this hole, they flew rather precisely through the middle of the hole. I asked myself, ‘How are they doing this, despite the fact that they don’t have any
stereovision to measure distances to various edges and so on?’ It turned out—we showed—that they were doing this by actually measuring the speed of motion of the images of the two edges with the two eyes and positioning themselves so that they stayed in the middle of this hole. So, if one edge is basically moving faster, it means that you are closer to that edge and you move away from that edge. You balance the visual flow on the two sides and that allows you to steer down gorges, tunnels or corridors in a very simple way, which the robotics people hadn’t realised. After we published this work on bees, a number of labs—robotics labs—started to produce robots that went down corridors using the same principle. It was something that we hadn’t thought of ourselves, but it led to this.
The other thing, for example, that came as a complete surprise—it probably would not have come if we
had looked at it as straight engineers—was how insects do a smooth landing on a horizontal surface. As you know, they don’t use radar, laser beams or anything like that. All they seem to do, if you analyse the data, is move in such a way that the velocity of the image of the ground is held constant as they approach it. So, if you keep the image velocity of the ground constant as you get closer and closer to the ground, this automatically ensures that you are flying slower and slower. Finally, when you are close enough to touch down, you are moving at almost zero speed, so you don’t burn your feet as you make contact.
It’s a beautiful biological autopilot for landing. With a system like this, you don’t need to know how far away
you are from the ground and you don’t need to know how rapidly you are approaching it. All that you need to do is look at the ground and adjust your speed so that the ground appears to be moving at the same speed as you come towards it. It’s a beautiful biological auto pilot. That is something that we are putting into aircraft now.
I also remember a system that you had that mimicked the multifaceted nature of insect eyes.
It would be nice to have a vision system that has all-round vision, because that is what insects have: you can look in front you and look behind you. This is not just for the sake of looking at potential predators but also estimating your own motion in the world—‘ego motion’, as they say. You can estimate your motion much better if you can look all around you. One way to do this is to actually build a miniature compound
eye. That is technically not easy and we didn’t have the expertise to do that. So we took another approach, which was to use off-the-shelf components, like standard cameras,
but make them face a specially curved reflecting surface in such a way that the reflecting surface captures almost all of the world around it—not the entire world but a good deal of it—so that you have got panoramic vision using a single camera. That had a few interesting applications not only for aircraft but also for surveillance and security, as you can imagine.
What do you see as the future of these lines of research?
In one sense, the low-level vision and navigation research will continue to play a role in building intelligent unmanned aerial vehicles that people can use for reconnaissance, surveillance and planetary exploration, because there aren’t going to be any GPS satellites, for example, put up for a long time. Instead, you really have to rely on your own senses and behave like a bird or an insect.
That is where this low-level vision and navigation research can play a role. The other aspect is that, by looking at the cognitive aspects of bees, which are very smart creatures, we might be able to learn how some of these fairly sophisticated computations happen in creatures with small brains. For example, learning to solve a maze or breaking camouflage. You can train bees to see through camouflaged objects, which they normally would not be able to see. There is a lot of clever things that they do. We don’t know exactly how they do it yet; but I think that the brain of the bee, being a fairly simple entity with fewer neurones, might give us some leads on this.
The other thing I would like to do—I do not know if I’ll ever get to do this— is to probe into the possibility of emotion in a simple-level system. Do bees have the basic emotions of fear, anger (or at least aggression, which you can certainly see in bees when you go and disturb their hive), joy, frustration, disappointment and all of those things? We might be able to discover the answer. Of course, you can’t ask a bee a question and that is a problem, but you can measure the heart rate of the bee and you can measure its reflexes. Pain is another issue. For example, the common perception is that invertebrates don’t feel pain. If you jab an insect and it pulls its leg back, people say, ‘Oh, that is just a reflex; it can’t be pain.’ But how do you know? We don’t know.
There are some interesting new approaches to looking at pain, for example, that I would like to apply to these lower creatures to see how similar or dissimilar they are. My personal feeling is that there is a continuum; there is no hard and fast line between vertebrates, on the one hand, and invertebrates, on the other hand.
Just because they don’t have a backbone doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t have any of these other basic functions.
I understand that they are training bees to work for customs agents.
Oh yes; that is a very interesting application. You can train bees. I don’t know how well it will work in a public area or scenario. But another related area, which is turning out to be quite promising, is detecting hidden mines. What you can do is train a hive of bees to feed from a sugar water source that is laced with some of the odorous chemicals that are exuded by a mine. Then you take this hive and place it near an area where you think
these mines might be around and apparently you find that these bees will settle in a clump over where the mine is. They don’t detonate the mine, because they are very light. Then, of course, you can send something to safely detonate the mine—and it is similar in customs for picking up people with illegal things that they are trying to traffic.
You mentioned looking for frustration in bees. What are some of your frustrating moments?
Well, I think the most frustrating moment for me—I have had several—was when I first went to Zurich and we started to work with bees. Bees are so smart, and I was told about how clever these creatures are, and so on. We decided, just for the heck of it, to see whether we could train bees to distinguish between a steady light and a flickering light. The idea behind doing that was to find out how rapid the visual system of the bee was in responding to changes in intensity, because people typically said, ‘Insects can respond to very high flicker frequencies’—up to about 200 hertz—whereas we humans cut out at about 50 hertz. So we tried—having a steady light on one side and a flickering light on the other side changing its intensity—by rewarding it on the steady side with a drop of sugar water if it chose that steady light. But, no matter how hard we tried, the bees behaved as if they could not tell the difference between the flickering light and the steady light. To this day, we don’t know exactly why, because I’m sure that they can see the flicker. You can record from any of the neurones in the visual pathway and the neurones will respond to flicker. But I think that somehow the bee as a whole is not geared to learn that stimulus.
That was kind of frustrating. Then we sort of changed the story a little bit and we noticed that, when you change the flicker and make it not flicker in intensity but flicker in colour so that the colour changes from blue to yellow on the one side—blue-yellow, blue-yellow, blue-yellow—and on the other side you have a steady mixture of blue and yellow, which is green, then the bees can tell the difference. So they can perceive colour differences very easily but not intensity differences—or at least that is wired into their system much better. That was a frustrating summer because in Zurich summer is the only window of opportunity you have for doing bee experiments and then you have winter and the bees don’t fly.
If you waste a whole summer, you get nothing that whole year. It was really frustrating and disappointing.
Can I tell you another frustrating one? It was a wake-up call. I’d just finished my PhD at Yale and I was giving this lecture at a conference that happened to be held at Yale; it was mostly my PhD dissertation work. I was scheduled in some slightly odd, strange session. When the time came for me to speak, the chairperson announced my name and the title of my talk. I was sitting in the back of the auditorium and there was this big exodus of people leaving the auditorium. I nearly got swept out by this cross-current and I had to battle my way back in and give the talk. That was—I don’t know whether ‘frustration’ is the right term—certainly a good wake-up call. Anyway, this was academia.
What are the findings that you are proudest of?
I would say probably the flying down through the narrow passages. That is one thing which is kind of cute, because it would not have been noticed if it wasn’t for doing biology. Also, I suppose the landing response—the behaviour of landing; what we call the ‘control of landing’, the ‘visual guidance of landing’—is another thing that I’m really happy about. One other thing is where we managed to correct a Nobel Laureate. That was when we found out how the bee works out how far it has flown to get to a food source. How does the bee’s odometer work? It turns out that it works through the bee’s vision too, by measuring how much of the world has actually moved past its eye. A bee doesn’t measure distance by measuring energy consumption, contrary to what Karl von Frisch thought about this thing. There’s a small wrinkle there.
What’s your advice for young scientists?
I would say: try to follow your heart and don’t worry too much about what the career
prospects are because, if you really enjoy what you’re doing, things will come through. I find it quite disheartening nowadays with the way that we are all sort of meant to chase impact factors and let our whole lives be covered by things like that. If a student comes to me nowadays and I suggest a project to him or her, the first thing they want to know is: what kind of impact factor has the journal that this is likely to be published in? If it has come to that stage it’s really very sad. People should follow their own heart and things will work out; that is my advice. Don’t spend a lot of time just reading stuff; get your feet wet and then, when you find that you don’t know something, go and pursue it. This is something that Peter Medawar also suggests to people in his book on advice to young scientists, and I fully endorse that.
Tell us some more about working with bees. How do you make the instruments small enough?
Working with bees itself is actually very easy—a lot easier than you might think.
You can do it in your own backyard and you don’t need a lot of equipment or money. Bees are natural foragers, so they like to go and seek out good food sources. So, if you happen to have a bee in your backyard or a beehive or even in someone else’s backyard a few hundred meters away, you could entice them to come and visit you by leaving out a dish of sugar water—some tissue paper soaked in sugar solution—and, if one bee comes and finds it sufficiently attractive, it will go back home and dance and tell the other bees where this good stuff is. Pretty soon you have a large number of bees coming to you. Then you can individually mark them with coloured dots of paint, using a paint brush or a stick. Bees are actually very peaceful when they come to you and not in an aggressive state of mind because they are foraging. They want to get their food and take it back home. It’s only when you open up the beehive and do something that threatens them that they get aggressive. So they actually come to you and, when they’re drinking from your feeder, you can actually reach over and stroke them on their backs, and they’re totally peaceful. You can then mark them individually and keep track of their learning, so you can do a simple little experiment. This is what von Frisch did, which got him a Nobel Prize, showing that bees perceive colour. He simply had two different-coloured pieces of paper, one which was yellow and the other blue. Every time a bee landed on the yellow piece of paper it would get a reward of sugar water; and the other one would just have plain water. They would look visually identical, but one had sugar and one had water. Then he would swap the sides periodically, from side to side, to make sure that the bees didn’t simply learn to come to one side. They had to pay attention to the visual stimulus and say, ‘Aha, that’s yellow and that’s what I want to get,’ and that worked. Within four or five rewards, the bees had learned to do this colour discrimination, which is pretty amazing. No one accepted it, of course, because at that stage people believed that no creature other than humans could perceive colour, and here he was saying that this lowly insect can perceive colour. It took him 10 years to get that work accepted by the scientific community.
The bee’s brain is tiny compared to a human brain and yet it can do all these marvellous things. What does it say about the human brain; and do you think that we could ever hope that the human brain might understand how the human brain itself works?
I suppose that is an interesting philosophical question, isn’t it? I think we can understand many of what we call lower-level processes. I’ll tell you an interesting thing: every time you don’t understand something, a higher cognitive phenomenon, you call it a higher cognitive phenomenon. But the moment you understand it, or think you understand it, you call it a low-level phenomenon. That barrier between high level and low level keeps getting
pushed further and further up. We do already understand some of the basic principles of perception. For example, we know in humans that, although we have good colour vision—track chromatic colour vision—some parts of our visual pathway are colour blind. The part of the brain that detects motion is colour blind, although the brain as a whole—the system as a whole—has the capacity for computing colour. There are things like that—again I should probably call that low-level vision—that we understand. With the question of the brain fully understanding itself, I guess there is a philosophical issue there, isn’t there? I don’t think that it will ever be possible; that is my own personal view. But this is why I want to study philosophy: to try to answer these questions.
Are you ever stung by bees when they’re accidentally disturbed?
Yes, that does happen. As long as you are not hyper-allergic to them it is okay.Most people develop a little swelling and it goes away after a while. Then, as they get stung more and more often, they become more and more immune to it. With most people it is okay. But there is a small fraction of people who go the other way: repeated stings actually increase their sensitivity. They should maybe not work with bees, or work with stingless bees—up in Queensland we have these lovely stingless bees; they are just as smart, by the way, as the other bees, so they’re lovely creatures—or take special precautions. If you are working together with someone or suited up, for example, that is fine. I would say that probably the best thing to do if you are really super-allergic to bees, is to not work with them and to get someone else to do the experiments for you.
If there are stingless bees, why are there bees with stings?
That’s interesting. The stingless bees seem to have a different method of trying to defend themselves against intruders. They cover the intruder up with wax and make it a very sticky situation for them. The kinds of predators they have in their natural environment are not large animals but other insects and beetles that might try and enter their hive. That is probably why they have evolved that method of defence; whereas the classic honeybee, the Italian honeybee, is faced with large animals trying to come and raid their nests—and humans as well, I suppose. That is my guess.
Should younger scientists who might like to follow into your career first study biology, engineering, maths or physics?
I would say that doing mathematics, engineering and physics would really help because biology—this is my personal opinion—is easier to pick up later in life; whereas, if you start with biology and then try to get into the quantitative sciences, especially mathematics, it’s harder. That is my personal impression. I think it is easier going the other way.
Is there much work on the molecular biology of the things that you are working on?
Yes. I myself am not a molecular biologist, regrettably, but I have colleagues who work on this. So, yes, the bee genome has been sequenced. I suppose what is interesting in the molecular biology field—and this is just my personal opinion—is that you can tinker with the system and find out what genes are controlling what, but still—as far as I know—up to this point doesn’t tell you exactly how the system works: how does the neural circuit actually work? It is very hard to tease that apart with just molecular biology tools. We still have to go back to putting electrodes in the neural circuit or understanding the systems through behaviour. The knockout techniques are great; they’re good for medical clinical purposes because you can then work out very quickly how you can perhaps cure somebody of something. The knockout techniques have wonderful medical applications. But, to understand the system itself molecular biology still has a way to go.
On this subject one of my favourite sayings is: do you know what made Gregor Mendel the father of modern genetics? Apparently, while all the other scientists of his time were busy dotting their i’s and crossing their t’s, Mendel boldly decided to cross his p’s (peas). Sorry about that bad pun! That’s a Srini original, by the way.
Srini, what did you bring back with you from Zurich?
In Zurich I was really very fortunate to be under the sort of tutelage, not only of Rüdiger Wehner, who was a professor there, but also of my sort of day-to-day colleague Dr Miriam Lehrer,
who was really the world expert on training bees. Unfortunately Dr Lehrer has passed away now. She taught me everything about bees, especially with training them. It seems easy now, but it is really an art. I brought that skill back with me from Zurich and then started a kind of bee research program at the Research School of Biological Sciences. When I first came back from Zurich, essentially I brought back with me this knowledge of working with bees. But it was really a one-man operation, so I was maintaining the hives, beekeeping, designing the experiments, running the experiments, analysing the data and writing the papers. It was a one-man show. But Miriam Lehrer would come back every summer from Zurich because our summer here was their winter over there; she couldn’t work with bees over there, but she could come and continue her work with bees here, so it was a great collaboration in that way.
There was also a very fruitful collaboration that started with Zhang Shaowu
or Shaowu Zhang; we know him as ‘Shaowu’. He first did a short visit here—I think it would have been in the late eighties—and then he went back to China. Eventually I ended up spending about four weeks in Beijing working with him, collaborating on bees. This was in a botanic garden north of Beijing—a beautiful botanic garden called the Sleeping Buddha Temple Park. The reason why it was done there was because not only were many bees visiting these flowers in the botanic garden, but also there was an institute of apiculture nearby which had a great supply of bees. You’ll never guess where we actually spent the evenings and nights. We had this luxury accommodation which was Madam Mao’s summer cottage. The Gang of Four was in jail at that time, so she was in jail as well, and we were living in her cottage! It had running hot-water, which was very rare in China in those days.
Some of the students who were working with us loved it—it was really luxurious for them. Anyway, it was a beautiful, idyllic setting which I had the great chance to experience. Shaowu was very keen on coming back to Australia after the Tiananmen events and everything that had happened there. As luck would have it, there was an opportunity for him to come over here and start on a postdoc with us. Eventually, he got a permanent position and rose to the ranks of professor before retiring recently. He and I did a lot of work together. It was a fantastic team and I owe him a lot. So thank you, Shaowu.
Thanks very much, Srini, for coming to the interview today; it’s been an honour and a pleasure.
Thank you Graham.
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