October 15, 2008

Bucknell researchers on night bat patrol.

(Editor's Note: The following article is excerpted from the fall 2008 issue of Bucknell Magazine. || Go to complete story and web exclusives.)

LEWISBURG, Pa. -- Central Pennsylvania in midsummer: A crescendo of color slips into the horizon, and the indigo sky darkens to a grainy dusk. A breeze rustles the cornfields. Little brown bats sleeping in the eaves of a large barn begin to awaken, and their twittering punctuates the descending night.

Assistant Professor of Biology DeeAnn Reeder and a group of students have assembled harp traps — large aluminum frames strung with line that confounds the bats’ flight and abets their capture — and set up a staging area for taking blood samples and recording data. The air is filled with the distinct and fetid smell of guano, but this team has long gotten used to it. They’ve spent most of their summer nights capturing and releasing bats.

The little browns begin to swoop out of the barn, a few at first, but within minutes the entire colony is fast departing. The harp traps do their job. The bats get caught in the line and fall into plastic sheeting rigged beneath the traps. The purpose of this night’s work is to determine how pregnant females respond to stress.

Stress hormones
The team members — Sara Alfano ’10, Kaitlyn Piatt ’09, Kim Weaver ’10, Megan Vodzak ’09 and Roymon Jacob MS’09 — scoop up the tiny mammals with no hesitation and determine with a gentle press to a female’s belly if she is pregnant or lactating. Holding the bats for an extended time to induce stress, the students take blood samples at specific intervals. Back in the lab, they will look for stress hormones, specifically cortisol and corticosterone.

“We catch bats all the time for different studies, but we don’t have a handle on the physiological effects,” says Reeder. “We expect to find that in pregnancy we won’t see the response to stress we do at other times. We think pregnant mammals tend to be resistant because you can’t afford to stress out the fetus. The data will have implications for wildlife management, conservation and bat research.”

Reeder will present this work at a conference or submit it to a peer-reviewed journal, and her name will appear last in the list of contributors, as it usually does. In the competitive world of academic research, Reeder not only considers her undergraduates full research partners, she gives them first credit. And she is not alone at Bucknell, where professors routinely engage their students in major research projects, which they present together as peers, not teacher and student.

Symposium on bat research
Later this month, Reeder and students, including all those listed above, plus John Kobilis ’09 and Amanda Kronquist ’10, will present at the North American Symposium on Bat Research on topics such as hibernation patterns, immune responses and wound-healing rates, as well as a preliminary survey of bats in southern Sudan.

In July, neuroscience major Vodzak joined Reeder in the Sudanese bush, helping to assess the local bat population and educating villagers about conservation.

“I feel lucky I have found a research adviser who’s not only interested in what she’s doing but also is interested in having undergraduates help her,” says Vodzak. “I never thought I would be able to say, ‘I’m going to Sudan to do field research.’ I am definitely unique in my group of friends at other schools.”

Leadership demands
Today’s Bucknell students live in an increasingly complex and technological world. Leadership demands that they are not just consumers of the benefits and by-products of science but purveyors of them. A 2007 report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise provides the underpinning for Bucknell’s academic vision and educational goals.

According to the report, “The world is being dramatically reshaped by scientific and technological innovations, global interdependence, cross-cultural encounters and changes in the balance of economic and political power.”

Says Provost Mick Smyer, “One of the hallmarks of success in the liberal arts university in the 21st century is the integration of faculty scholarship and student learning. It’s not so much that we just want our students to learn facts and information, but we also want them to learn how to develop an understanding in a specific discipline or a field.”

Contact: Division of Communications

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