Rob Dunn

About Rob Dunn

Rob Dunn is a biologist and writer in the Department of Biological Sciences at North Carolina State University. Central to all of his work is the sense that big discoveries lurk not only in faraway tropical forests, but also in our backyards and even bedrooms. The unknown is large and wonderful and Dunn and his collaborators, students, and postdocs love to spend their days in it.

Delayed Gratification, Citizen Science and Why You Might Not Have Received an Email about Your Sample Yet

But, If You Are So Willing, You’ll Receive Emails and Updates for the Next 10 Years. Also, Did I Tell You about the Cats?

I do not have any particular predilection for delayed gratification. I can’t watch YouTube videos because I don’t like not being able to control the pace and see where I am going. I don’t like departmental seminars because almost inevitably one can read the paper faster (and get to the good parts) than one can listen to the talk. Actually, this is too meek of a statement. I actually hate departmental seminars. My wife is patient. My […]

Fruit Flies Use Alcohol to Self-Medicate, but Feel Bad about it Afterwards

In preparation for the debut of our collaborative wasp yeast beer at the World Beer Festival in Raleigh on April 5, 2014, I revived the Science Miniseries: The Big Story of Alcohol, Civilization and a Little Fungus that I wrote in 2012. We started with “He Is a Wise Man Who Invented Beer,” and then followed up last week with “A Sip for the Ancestors: The True Story of Civilization’s Stumbling Debt to Beer and Fungus.” Today I offer you Chapter 2, a story of self-medicating fruit flies:

Sometimes scientists are asked if they have hobbies. […]

By | March 4th, 2014|Stories of Your Wild Life|0 Comments

A Sip for the Ancestors: The True Story of Civilization’s Stumbling Debt to Beer and Fungus

In preparation for the debut of our collaborative wasp yeast beer at the World Beer Festival in Raleigh on April 5, 2014, I’ve decided to revive the Science Miniseries: The Big Story of Alcohol, Civilization and a Little Fungus that I wrote  in 2012. A couple weeks ago, I set the stage with “He is a wise man who invented beer.” Below, I continue with Chapter One.

Solomon Katz is an anthropologist. He worked for years to understand humans. It is an endeavor that can inspire a certain distance, a remove from the world. This is the […]

By | February 24th, 2014|Stories of Your Wild Life|1 Comment

Lewis Thomas and the Ants of New York City

Lewis Thomas was a doctor who wrote articles so beautiful everyone forgot he was anything but a writer. Joyce Carol Oates used Thomas’s writing in her classes as general examples of the craft. Thomas was the kind of writer who left paragraphs that, on their own, might, with any luck, last centuries. They have already lasted decades. Here, for example, is one of which I am fond…

A gallery in New York exhibited a collection of 2 million live army ants, on loan from Central America, in a one-colony show entitled “Patterns and Structures.” They were displayed on sand in […]

By | February 17th, 2014|ants, Reading List, Stories of Your Wild Life|1 Comment

He is a wise man who invented beer

It has been a fun set of weeks in the lab. Two weeks ago I discovered ants from our lab had made their way to the space station.  Last week, we started to go through insect samples from chimpanzee nests (They are amazing! More on this soon.). Then this week, I tasted our beer.

The beer in question – one that we helped make – is delicious. It is also the result of a kind of symphony of science, a collaboration with Anne Madden (who will join us soon as a new postdoc), Anne’s undergraduate students, John Sheppard […]

By | February 10th, 2014|Reading List, Stories of Your Wild Life|0 Comments

Ants Take Over Space Station

A generation ago, the hopes for a colony on the moon or elsewhere beyond the Earth’s atmosphere were great, so great that a replica of what such a colony might look like was built on Earth. The replica was called Biosphere 2 and its aim was to figure out if an entire ecosystem could be built from scratch. Its goal was to be a terrarium inside of which humans could be a focal species, observed and sustained.

The humans who crawled inside Biosphere 2 did not last long. Oxygen was in short supply. Many other things went wrong. And […]

By | January 29th, 2014|ants|1 Comment

How to turn any dataset into a glowing worm

A few decades ago gene expression, the process by which the code books of genes are turned into proteins, was invisible. It happened in every living thing, but where and when a particular gene was being expressed was a complicated secret nature was reluctant to reveal. Then came Martin Chalfie, who I recently had the great pleasure to meet as part of seminar at North Carolina State University (whereupon he told me this story). Chalfie was studying nematodes, those transparent little worms that dwell in soil, on skin and even in tap water, but are best known for […]

A Hundred Eager Kids: The Fred A. Olds Soap Biodiversity Project

Recently, I started going back to elementary school. The goal was simple; I was going to try to do real science in the classroom. We have a big project with middle schools around the world to do just this, but it seemed as though something could be done in elementary school, too, and the one three blocks from my house seemed a good place to start.

I’ve visited the classroom a few times. When I do, all the third graders in the school are gathered into one classroom. They fidget against each other like a hundred tiny tornadoes.

We started simple. […]

By | January 2nd, 2014|Belly Button Biodiversity, Education|4 Comments

Revealing the twenty most important species living in your body

What lives in you? It is a simple enough question. Yet, for most of history, it has been unanswerable. Finally, in just the last few years, we have begun to get a picture of the creatures on which you depend for existence, the creatures that constitute, literally, the majority of your cells, the creatures being dragged around as you cook breakfast, drive your car, shower or do anything else. It is a fuzzy picture, seen through the lenses of genes rather than through a microscope, and yet it is the best we have ever had.

What exactly do we see? One […]

By | December 10th, 2013|Invisible Life|12 Comments

The Belly Buttons Will be Revealed, Slowly

We are finally revealing our last batch of results about Belly Button Biodiversity, results of samples of 583 people. In doing so, we are going to try something new. I am going to write a series of short articles, paragraphs really, about belly button life, out of which I will build a paper. Every few days, I will add a few pieces until I have added the data, results, discussion, and, ultimately, produced a whole paper. Once I get to the results, the data will be linked below. If you have participated in the Belly Button Biodiversity project, […]

By | November 25th, 2013|Belly Button Biodiversity|2 Comments

Citizen Scientists Document the Spread of Giant Cricket, Basement to Basement

05camel cricketIt is an animal the size of a pinky finger. It hops wildly, blindly out of the dark.  And still, somehow, it has moved unstudied basement to basement across North America, the yeti in our midst. It is the Asian Camel Cricket (Diestrammena asynamora).

In previous work with citizens, we very accidentally discovered that this cricket had spread much more than we (or perhaps anyone) suspected. It appears to have spread primarily indoors, though it’s also being found outdoors as it hops away from houses to find, well, we […]

By | September 27th, 2013|Books, Camel Crickets, Participate, Projects|44 Comments

The Biggest Microscope in the World

and it is focused on your toilet seat…

My grandmother, Barbara, often talked about growing up in a bedroom that was an observatory. She also, in her telling, sat on Faulkner’s front lawn and listened to him tell stories and swam in a small pond with her siblings while a man with one arm stood guard, shotgun in that one good arm in case he had to shoot a water moccasin. Most of these stories have, amazingly, proven to be true, but the one I could never make sense of was the idea that she grew up sleeping in an observatory, […]

By | September 13th, 2013|Explainer, Stories of Your Wild Life|0 Comments

New Revelations about the Biodiversity of Belly Buttons

*This post first appeared on the Scientific American Guest Blog on September 9, 2013.*

When it comes to science, I have the patience of a rabid fox, trapped in a cage, in front of which a wounded rabbit is standing. My family, the folks in my lab and the need for sleep balance this nascent madness. But sometimes the caged fox of mania escapes; sometimes when everyone else sleeps I can’t resist the run.

Today was one of those days. We saw another glimpse into the life inside belly buttons. Belly buttons are ridiculous and yet the life […]

By | September 9th, 2013|Projects|0 Comments

How Many Ants Live in New York City?

by Rob Dunn

Every so often for the last ten years, one of my collaborators, students or I could be seen standing in a median on Broadway, bending over, looking at ants. We looked at the ants, and the people of New York, as is the custom, tried hard to avoid looking at us.  Every so often someone, perhaps an immigrant new to the city and unfamiliar with the rules about eye contact, would give in to temptation and ask, “What are you doing?” We would usually say, “studying ants,” though I will confess that sometimes it was just easier to […]

By | August 7th, 2013|ants, Feature, Stories of Your Wild Life|4 Comments

The Climate Inside

Our houses modify the climate around them. In great densities, our houses and other buildings can change weather patterns. Urbanization increases temperatures. It can also affect storms. Atlanta, Georgia actually causes lightning to form that would not otherwise exist. If one wanted evidence that we were messing with Zeus, this seems to be it. Cities change the weather outside, but what about the weather inside?

A single house on its own can create new climate conditions, conditions far different from those outside the front door (We love to be comfortable). But just how different? Ecologists have spent centuries characterizing the […]

By | August 5th, 2013|Explainer, Homes, Projects|1 Comment