Our 'Golden Mole' Winner Used To Paint Wasps For A Living

Mar 1, 2016
Originally published on March 2, 2016 1:00 am

Finding success in science requires smarts, determination — and sometimes a bit of luck. NPR's Skunk Bear created the Golden Mole Award For Accidental Brilliance to celebrate that last part.

You sent us hundreds of stories of mistakes, coincidences and surprises that recently led to new discoveries. Last week we shared the top nominees, and we now have a winner: Elizabeth Tibbetts, a biologist at the University of Michigan.

In graduate school, Tibbetts spent hours watching footage of wasp colonies, trying to understand how the insects cooperate. To be able to tell the wasps apart, she would paint each one with a color-coded dot.

"You use model airplane paint," Tibbetts tells us. "That's the gold-standard wasp paint."

While watching a video one day, Tibbetts realized she had forgotten to paint a few of the wasps. She was annoyed — a wasted recording, with no good data. But then she noticed something.

"I could still tell them apart, just by their natural patterns," she says.

Looking closely, she realized that each wasp has a unique face. There are wasp "eyebrows" of different sizes, and a variety of colors, spots and stripes.

That made Tibbetts wonder: If she could distinguish between individual wasps, could they tell each other apart? Established wisdom held that social insects don't care who's who — they're interchangeable.

"Maybe if I had more experience, I wouldn't have pursued it," Tibbetts says, "because maybe I would have thought it was implausible."

Luckily, Tibbetts was not burdened by experience. And her experiments have shown that wasps can recognize each other. They are capable of personal relationships.

That was a dozen years ago. Since then, Tibbetts has learned much more about the complexities of wasp social life. And she made another discovery. Wasps' tiny, tiny brains are actually wired to recognize faces, just as human brains are.

Tibbetts turned a chance observation into a career, and she is the winner of the 2016 Golden Mole Award For Accidental Brilliance.

But it was a close call. We received so many great stories. You can read about 12 of our favorites here.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Finding success in science requires smarts, determination and sometimes luck. NPR's science blog, Skunk Bear, celebrates that last part with an award, the Golden Mole Award For Accidental Brilliance - what a name. They called for stores of mistakes, coincidences and surprises that led to new discoveries. Now NPR's Adam Cole has the winner.

ADAM COLE, BYLINE: Many of the stories start the same way - with confusion, dismay and beer.

DAVID AWSCHALOM: Most of the experiments were failing miserably.

MELISSA BROWN: I was flummoxed.

GEORGE LIU: Aha - this was the source of a problem.

CAROLL: That's sort of the end of the road for this one. Back to the drawing board.

AWSCHALOM: So I would say initially, there were a lot of Friday night beers, not so much about excitement but, why should we keep trying this experiment?

COLE: But the stories don't end there because the scientists stuck with it. And their problems turned out to be the key to new ways of thinking. Melissa Brown's grad student couldn't tell the difference between male and female lab mice.

BROWN: There is really just a very subtle difference in the spacing of orifices in the genital region.

COLE: She mixed them up. But the gender switch led to a whole new line of multiple sclerosis research. George Liu was struggling to figure out the defense mechanisms of bacteria, but his experiments weren't working, and he kept getting distracted by calls from his anxious mother.

LIU: She came back to me and harped on the point that I should take more vegetable and fruits because they're bright colors, and they're rich in vitamin.

COLE: Suddenly, he realized that something he never considered - the pigment in the bacteria - could explain his weird lab results.

David Awschalom studies materials for quantum computing. He moved to a new lab, and his experiments went haywire.

AWSCHALOM: The room lights were having a very big effect on this experiment. And we were just lucky enough - or ignorant enough - to be able to see it.

COLE: The thing that was messing up their experiments was actually an effect that engineers have been trying to achieve for years.

In graduate school, Elizabeth Tibbetts spent hours watching footage of wasp colonies. She was trying to understand how they cooperate. She would paint each wasp with a color-coded dot so she could tell them apart.

ELIZABETH TIBBETTS: You use model airplane paint. That's the gold standard wasp paint.

COLE: But one day, she was watching a video and realized she had forgotten to paint a few of the wasps.

TIBBETTS: And of course I was annoyed.

COLE: But then, she noticed something.

TIBBETTS: The wasps actually looked kind of different, even without the paint.

COLE: Looking closer, she realized that each wasp had a unique face.

TIBBETTS: Some of them have little, you know, eyebrows above their eye. And they can be big eyebrows or no eyebrows. And then in this little plate above their face they can have black, brown or yellow, and various combinations of stripes and spots.

COLE: That made Tibbetts wonder - if she could distinguish between individual wasps, could they tell each other apart? That question went against established wisdom. The traditional idea was that social insects don't care who's who. They're interchangeable.

TIBBETTS: Maybe if I had more experience, I wouldn't have pursued it because maybe I would have thought it was implausible.

COLE: But luckily, Tibbetts was not burdened by experience, and her experiment showed that wasps can recognize each other. They're capable of personal relationships. That was a dozen years ago. Since then, she's learned much more about the complexities of wasp social life. And she made another discovery. Wasps' tiny, tiny brains are actually wired to recognize faces, just like human brains. Tibbetts turned a chance observation into a career, and she is the winner of the 2016 Golden Mole Award For Accidental Brilliance.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

COLE: But it was a close call. We received so many great stories. And you can find more of our favorites on Skunk Bear's Tumblr and YouTube channel. Adam Cole, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.