Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Ants Go Marching . . .

I just returned from a week-long research conference in Chicago (AERA)--my mind electrified by sparks catalyzed by the unexpected convergence of cognitive load theory, self-efficacy, mirror neurons, motivation, play, and split attention. So, I find it particularly amusing that what captivated my attention today was a simple clan of virtual ants, and that in some ways, I learned more about research from my engagement with them than I did from the conference!

I happened to be chatting on the phone with a friend when she suddenly expressed with dismay that a group of ants had suddenly materialized in her kitchen. Since they weren't in MY kitchen, I wasn't particularly disturbed. Besides, unless they bite, ants don't seem particularly distressing to me.

First rule of research: If it disturbs your research partner, it WILL affect your work!

My friend explained that all of the ants seemed to be focusing their attention on a rather large crumb of bread. Although we continued to chat, as our conversation progressed, she interrupted it periodically with news flashes regarding the progress of the ants (which, upon reflection, makes me wonder how engaged she was in our conversation!)

Second Rule of Research: It is just as important to observe the interaction between the subject and the researcher as it is to observe the subject and/or the interaction between the subject and the context.

"This is amazing!" she exclaimed. "They are picking up this giant crumb of bread. It would be the equivalent of me and a group of my friends trying to pick up a skyscraper!" The periodic news flashes (I could almost hear the urgent music and the "We interrupt our regular programming to bring you this special news update!") soon turned to play-by-play descriptions of the ants' efforts. (She would make a great sportscaster!)

Third Rule of Research: Sometimes, the most important questions are buried beneath comments that seem to require no interrogation.

I should have pondered why she was so completely enthralled by the ants. I should have posited alternative hypotheses . . . perhaps it was the immediacy of the ant phenomenon by contrast with the more physically remote phenomenon of our disembodied conversation? Perhaps our conversation was boring her, and this was a useful way to divert the course of the conversation?

Eventually, our conversation turned to the best way to help the ant visitors to understand that they were no longer welcome to remain as guests in her kitchen. After determining that stepping on them was a little harsh, she decided to pick up the crumb of bread, put it on a plate, wait for them to converge on the plate, and then transport them to a new location outside of her apartment. After several minutes, she decided that they weren't very good at recognizing implied invitations, and gave up on that approach.

I explained the manner in which pheromones help ants to create and follow trails to their food sources. I remembered my mom telling me that sprinkling baby powder (or something) on the floor would keep them away (either because they couldn't smell the pheromones to cross it, wouldn't cross it, or because it would make them sick and kill them. However, I couldn't remember exactly what the substance was or what effect it was supposed to have).

Fourth Rule of Research: A thorough literature review must include adequate documentation of the information encountered.

Meanwhile, I did recall a site I'd come across recently about getting rid of stuff (including pests). After reading various potential remedies from the site to my friend over the phone, we decided to conduct our own mini-investigation. :-)

We began with cinnamon. (I suppose she thought that would be especially humane and might add to the ambience of her kitchen?) Her exclamations certainly captured my attention, but did not contain sufficient data regarding the results of the experiment for me to make an informed decision regarding the next step in the research.

Fifth Rule of Research: It is important for the researcher to take good field notes and to share them with the other members of the research team. It is also useful to include a descriptive analysis of the data in the write-up of the research, and not just merely the conclusions it supports.

After additional queries on my part, I finally learned that the ants walked right into the cinnamon and didn't seem remotely disturbed. Next came the bay leaf. The experience my colleague had gained during the first intervention positioned her to report much richer data based on the field notes that she "streamed" to me during the course of this second intervention, "They are congregating around it." "One little guy is perched on top of it." "Now they are all flocking to it." Check. Scratch the bay leaf off as a potential remedy. Perhaps baby powder would work?

Sixth Rule of Research: It is much easier to state the Rules of Research than it is to adhere to them.

After a few of the ants coated themselves in it with minimal effects, we decided that perhaps we should move on to other sources. I began reading the comments that other readers had posted on the pest removal page. We spent quite a bit of time giggling at the mental images of little ants trying to cross detergent-filled moats, exploding from eating instant grits or molasses, or being sucked up by the "roomba" vacuum that the descriptions evoked. We finally decided that chili powder made a lot of sense, so it became our last experiment before my friend went to find her shoe and her vacuum.


"Ohhhh! The chili powder!" "Well, wait, they're coming toward it." "Hmmm." "Well, one is walking through it." "Hmmm. They don't seem to, well . . . no . . . now that one is acting a little crazy. They are all leaving the cinnamon except the one little guy who seems to like it, but they are all fleeing the chili powder. They seem to like the bay leaf though."


Ants seem to have an aversion to chili powder that, with sufficient exposure, can become a fatal allergy.


Doctoral students who have too much to do, are not getting enough sleep, and are looking for distractions can find "research" quite fascinating if you pick the right topics!


Allison said...

I found this post hilarious! I think ants are quite fascinating myself. My husband says I'm obsessed with them. Maybe...I don't know. I just think they're discusting, but very interesting. Do you know some of them eat each other when they're dead? Now that's really gross!

Cherice said...

Well, ants have been on my mind this week! I just discovered three gigantic ones in my own apartment . . . one in the kitchen, one in the bathroom, and one on my bed in the bedroom! Given the fact that my apartment never gets bugs in it (except spiders from time to time), and that I haven't seen any ants in the 3 years I've lived in it, I can't figure out where they came from!

Makes me wonder if the guest appearances they made in some of Salvador Dali's work were nothing more than the result of simple experiences like this!

Allison said...

Once again you are hilarious! I liked your Salvador Dali comment. Wouldn't that be funny if he did put those ants in his paintings because he himself had an ant problem!

Cherice said...

Well, it did seriously make me wonder! If there is anything I've learned, it is that the little things in our lives make regular guest appearances in our public performances of ourselves--sometimes consciously, but at others, unconsciously. It really makes me wonder! :-) You'll be happy to know that I haven't seen any around in the last few weeks. Don't know if the word spread to the rest of the colony that my apartment is somewhat of a Bermuda triangle--those who enter never return--or if the heat just sent them all underground, or what . . . but I'm not complaining! :-)

Dave said...

OK, so I haven't actually read this, but I'm enticed...I'll be reading.