Prof. Graham Thompson

The Well-behaved Gene

Genetic and environmental causes interact to affect cooperation, socialization and other animal behaviours


Graham Thompson is a Professor of Biology at Western University. We asked everything from why he chose his field of study to what’s on his playlist in hopes of giving you a better understanding of what goes on outside the lab for one of the best minds in Canadian research.

What inspired you to become a scientist?
My interest in science grew slowly from high school through university. I don’t think I envisioned ‘scientist’ as a career, it just happened over time by aligning my interests and skills. When I was an undergrad at the University of Guelph in the 1990’s, I plugged away like everyone else, and was not an especially high ranking student, until I got to 4th year. I took an elective course called ‘Animal Behaviour’. It was taught by a now retired professor called David Noakes, and, for the first time among all undergraduate courses, he taught us how to think from an evolutionary perspective. In biology, this is important. Alas, the emphasis in this memorable course was on concept, rather than content per se.

He asked us to read ‘The Selfish Gene’ by Richard Dawkins and, as in the book, he advocated a gene’s-eye-view of evolution, which provides a simple but powerful understanding of how natural selection works. Once you get this, and I mean really get it, all of biology – the living world – becomes your oyster. To this day, I think and teach from this perspective.

That 4th year undergrad experience was therefore rather inspiring, especially in hindsight. I sometimes wonder if undergrads these days have these seminal moments of clarity… and what if they never do?! I was lucky.

What do you like most about being a scientist?
Sometimes being a research scientist can be frustrating, so I wouldn’t say it’s all good. Writing grants to gain research money and equipment, convincing critics and skeptics of your ideas and findings, relating your work to a broad audience, recruiting smart students and training them, is all a slow and demanding processes that is not always successful. And doing so against a backdrop of teaching within a university setting, and against a family life at home, can add serious busyness to your life that I’m sure most professors and scientists can relate to. But, for me, I think its immensely important to advance our scientific understanding of how the living world works, and relate this, where appropriate, to the human condition, and to a broad audience.

In the long run, science is very rewarding, and the rewards last a lifetime…. actually, longer. Once you figure something out, your results and ideas are immortalized in print forever, and can inform those who are not even born yet. I think a lot of scientists like this lasting effect, and prefer it over short term, ephemeral pursuits that might typify other professions. In addition, I think science is ultimately a social endeavour. Its really about working with people – students, colleagues, mentors, staff, editors, organizers… everyone! Forging these friendships and collaborations is fun, and in science, these connections are often far-reaching and long-lasting.

What do you envision in the future of your field?
My field of behavioural genetics is very exciting, and moves fast. We’re trying to find the genetic and environmental cues that trigger certain types of behaviour, and this understanding  can go some way to explaining the evolutionary origins of certain behavioural traits in the first place. Specifically, my research group is interested in social behaviour – as in, why some animals live cooperatively in groups, while others are totally individualistic. It turns out that genes and the genetic relatedness among individuals can play a big role in determining how societies originate, and, once formed, how they persist and thrive, or collapse amid conflict and competition. It’s interesting stuff. I think our understanding of socio-biology is already strong, but is not widely understood beyond the specialists in the field, and is even prone to being misunderstood, with sometimes negative consequences. I think that, slowly, evolutionary genetic thinking will be adopted by a larger swath of our students and educators. If so, they will be in position to break down unproductive barriers that sometimes keep biologists (who study all forms of life) and social and medical scientists (who only study humans) in different spheres.

How will your research make a difference in our lives?
Our study of genes that affect animal behaviour is interesting in its own right, but can generate practical spin-offs, too. For example, we sometimes use insects to test our predictions and probe insect genomes for genes of interest. What motivates a honey bee worker towards self-sacrifice? Wouldn’t it be cool to find the genes that make her altruistic? Is this same gene present in other taxa? Beyond this questions of interest, our work directly informs us on the role that genes and genotypes play in shaping other aspects of honey bee behaviour, including behaviours related to colony hygiene and health, colony vigour and resistance to pesticides, especially of this resistance is a function of their social behaviour, as one could well imagine if workers are foraging on behalf of their colony, and bio-accumulating intoxicated foods in their hives. Another example from a social insect that we sometimes study, comes from termites. The genes that govern their social cohesion are the very genes that are most likely to be effective in their control as urban pests. Wouldn’t it be cool to disrupt a termite infestation by manipulating the expression of genes that they need to recognize and cooperate with each other? And eradicate them without the use of toxic chemicals? Our research program is a good example of how pure research can inform practical, even commercial, outcomes.

What advice would you give young researchers?
Follow your interests, and match these to your unique set of skills. Be sure to first recognize these two qualities in yourself. Avoid choosing a career whimsically, as if it were an item on a restaurant menu. As in, “Mmmm… I think I’ll have the veterinarian sandwich, with a side of physiotherapy.”  Instead, think creatively, and deliver your skills to where they are needed, wherever that is! Your future job may not even have a name, yet, or at least not one that you’ve heard of. But you’ll know what it’s called when you get there :)

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I don’t herald any single achievement. For me, it’s more a lifetime of work. Each achievement small, but together forms a cohesive tapestry that helps to advance my whole field, and the people in it.

What do you read?
I avoid reading popular science. Despite getting a lot of these fad books for birthdays and Christmas, I just don’t like it :)

What’s on your iPod?
I have a jam-packed iTunes library! Mostly gems from the 80s and 90s, with the odd newbie thrown in.

If you could meet any historical figure who would it be and why?
Living, Richard Dawkins. Dead, George Price, who came up with the Price Equation, an important and baffling mathematical explanation for how natural selection promotes the evolution of social behaviour ( Sadly, he then committed suicide.

If you could do any profession other than your own what would it be?
Drummer in a rock band.

What do you like to do for fun?
My day to day life is pretty fun, and I don’t normally feel the need to ‘go have fun’. I guess I’m lucky that way :)

Want to learn even more about Prof. Thompson? Check out his Orange Chair Interview.