Earning one’s PhD can be a hard-won accomplishment, years of dogged work finally paying off, but rarely does that road make a stop, albeit a temporary one, in Hollywood. That’s just where it led Karl Glastad, now a post-doc researcher in the lab of Shelley Berger, PhD, scientific director of the Epigenetics Program at Penn.
While Glastad was working on his PhD in Atlanta, he was asked to help out on a movie, and that movie happened to be one of the biggest summer blockbusters of the year: Ant Man. Fitting, as his work has centered on the huge world of the tiny insects.
In the movie, Paul Rudd plays small time thief Scott Lang who, upon release from prison, unwittingly burgles what appears to be just a cool-looking jumpsuit from someone’s home. When he tried it on at home, he shrunk down to the size of an ant and quickly found himself in between two scientists, one who sees the technology as the next big thing in warfare. The audience also meets Evangeline Lily as Rudd’s female interest and an ant which Rudd’s character rides named Antony (…get it?).
The film made a cool half-billion at box offices worldwide last summer and the good-hearted super hero with a criminal history made another appearance in this year’s smash hit Captain America: Civil War.
I asked Glastad about his experience with the film, a set nickname he received and his work with the bugs.
Could you tell me a little about your work with ants?
I’ve been collecting and keeping ants since I was about eight (it probably goes without saying that I was a weird kid), which was quite applicable for a lot of what I did while consulting.
I did my PhD work on eusocial insect epigenetics, with a lot of my work being computational (genome-wide analyses, assembly, etc). Eusocial insects (ants, some bees, some wasps, termites) are pretty interesting study organisms in terms of epigenetics, as a given ant colony is basically a very closely related family, but exhibit extreme differences in physiology between siblings – eg, most worker ants live less than a year, while queens are some of the longest living insects there are (10-30 years).
Since these differences are rarely because of genetic differences, most of this disparity is due to epigenetic differences (non-genetic factors that change gene expression across cell divisions in response to environment), that are determined during development. In short, the average ant egg has the potential to develop into either an egg-laying machine that can live longer than many mammals, or a well-armed work machine that’s obligatorily sterile, all depending upon their developmental environment, making them excellent models for studies of metazoan epigenetics/plasticity.
How did you get involved? What was that process like?
One day while I was still getting my PhD, my boss called me into his office and asked if I wanted to consult for a movie. At the time we didn’t know what movie it was or what was meant by consult. I agreed (who wouldn’t?), and the first thing that happened was that the art director for the movie visited our lab on campus to get a feel for what a real social insect lab was like. I think she was kind of disappointed with the lack of colored bubbling liquids in glass chemistry equipment (as so many non-scientist are when they see a real molecular biology lab), but it was then that she told us the movie would be Ant Man, which I actually laughed out loud at, as I didn’t realize it was a real superhero and thought she was joking.
After that, we were contacted by the head of their props department who needed help with a prop that was going to contain live ants. We collected them some black carpenter ants (Camponotus pennsylvanicus), and I then was on set for the filming of some kind of teaser, largely so I could keep the ants active and from escaping while they shot the trailer.
After that, I visited the props warehouse multiple times to provide more carpenter ants we collected for them, and pinned about 800 of them in lifelike poses for the CGI guys to use for lighting references (most of the ants in the movie were CG, but they needed actual specimens as lighting references).
The coolest part of the whole experience was when I got to visit the set multiple times while they were filming several scenes, to help Evangeline Lilly, the female lead. I spent some time meeting her and Rudd, and gave her notes on how to pronounce some of the Latin names during the shooting of a few scenes.
There was also another time where they let a bunch of harvester ants out of a prop mid-shoot. I was called in and started collecting them by hand, only to look up and see everyone (actors, director, etc.) staring at me as if I was handling a tiger. That was possibly the coolest I’ll ever be in life. Ever.
All in all it was pretty surreal being a consultant on a big budget Marvel movie and meeting the actors because I was doing a PhD on ant genomics. Pretty sure I used up my lifetime supply of good luck on that one.
I remember as a kid learning that ants can carry many times their weight. What other ant characteristics lend well to the superhero world?
I’ve never been much of a superhero buff, but I think the best additions would be to allow Ant Man to give birth to a clone of himself, explode at will, fire acid from his rear end, jump 50 times his own body length, be able to give birth to a small town, and be able to subsist only on other people’s vomit. These are all things at least a few ant species can do (Paratrechina longicornis, Camponotus saundersi, Formicine ants, Myrmecia, all ants, and all ants, respectively), and I think these additions would really make Ant Man stand out in terms of superheroes.
What aspect of the ant life do you wish they incorporated?
I’m a bit biased here, but there are lots of legitimately cool things that ants do, and so I’ll shamelessly plug my favorite study taxon. Some ants have actually mastered agriculture and some the husbandry of other insects. Some can create rafts out of masses of their own bodies and others create their nests out of leaves weaved together with silk from their larvae. Some survive in the Sahara, some use some members of their colony as living storage vats, and its argued that the entire mass of ants in the world would be approximately equivalent to the entire mass of humans.
I’m not really sure how those things could get incorporated into a Marvel film, but you’d better believe I’d pay to see them try.
Did you get a chance to see the movie? How did they do, scientifically speaking?
As well as one might hope from a big-budget superhero movie. They referred to Antony, the ant that Ant Man rode around on, as a male, but almost all ants in a colony are female. I actually pointed this out to the director (in fear of my ant colleagues’ reprisal), but apparently reshooting multiple scenes costs lots of money. Of course, when a film is about someone who can shrink below the size of an atom using a belt apparatus and converse with invertebrates, it’s hard to be nit-picky about these kinds of things.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
They actually called me an “ant wrangler” on set, which I found pretty entertaining, and someone even asked me how long I’d been employed as an ant wrangler for movies, as if that’s a sustainable profession.
Also Lilly, who played Tauriel in The Hobbit, said that the Latin names of the ants she had to rehearse were “harder to learn than Elvish.” While I find that highly suspect, the nerd in me nearly lost it.