UCL Division of Biosciences

Prof Seirian Sumner

Prof Seirian Sumner

Professor of Behavioural Ecology

Genetics, Evolution & Environment

Div of Biosciences

Joined UCL
1st Oct 2016

Research summary

Seirian's focuses on the mechanisms and evolution of behavioural (phenotypic) plasticity and how these relate to life in changing environments. Social insects (bees, wasps, ants and termites) are excellent models for this, as their societies and social phenotypes (queens and worker castes) provide us with extraordinary diversity in social complexity, phenotypic plasticity and biodiversity, replicated across several independent evolutionary lineages. Her research exploits this remarkable radiation in order to understand how phenotypic and behavioural diversity is produced, determine what facets of this biodiversity account for an individual’s behaviour, and explore how this influences their ecology and resilience to environmental change. She addresses these at proximate and ultimate levels by integrating recent advances in molecular techniques and state-of-the-art field monitoring technology, with classical behavioural ecology on wild populations of non-model organisms.

Teaching summary

Seirian is course designer, organiser and main lecturer for a 3rd year undergraduate course, Behavioural Ecology for the Anthropocene (BIOL00048). This course teaches the core concepts in behavioural ecology, with a specific emphasis on the relevance of behaviour in the changing environments of the Anthropocene. 

She also contributes to an MRes module on Science Communication, and two 2nd year courses on insect ecology and tools in molecular ecology


Seirian is a behavioural ecologist. Her work research sits at the interface of behavioural ecology, biodiversity and conservation. She uses a combination of field ecology and genomic techniques to address questions about how and why animals live in societies. She is especially interested in social wasps, and is working hard to raise the profile of these ecologically important insects, among both scientific and lay communities. As part of these efforts, she co-founded the Big Wasp Survey in 2017 – a citizen science project designed to engage the public with the diversity and importance of social wasps in their back yard. 

She holds a BSc and PhD from University College London, has worked as a postdoc in Copenhagen, held independent research fellowships from the Smithsonian Institute, RCUK, and the Zoological Society of London. She was a Senior Lecturer at University of Bristol form 2012-2016. She took up her current position in October 2016 as a Reader in Behavioural Ecology at University College London. She was awarded a L’Oreal for Women in Science Fellowship Award in 2007.

Seirian is a passionate science communicator and works hard to help tackle inequality in science: she co-founded Soapbox Science in 2011 to help promote the visibility and profile of women in science. This initiative has expanded nationally and internationally to over 25 destinations worldwide involving over 600 female scientists. Through this initiative, she has received several awards, including recognition from the UK Prime Minister (Points of Light Award), a Silver Medal from the Zoological Society of London and the first Equality and Diversity award from the British Ecological Society.