Feeling blood rush to my head every time I remember I won against such amazing competition! Thank you all!
Duke University (2007 – 2011), University of Michigan (2012 – Present)
Ecologist and evolutionary biologist, wildlife biologist in South Africa, genetic researcher
Hollywood Bowl, Colburn School of Performing Arts, Duke University, University of Michigan, 826michigan (Volunteer)
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, PhD Candidate and Graduate Student Instructor
University of Michigan
Favourite thing to do in my job: Exploring uncharted territory in the field – whether it’s trapping animals off the beaten path, observing from the safety of some hardy field vehicles, or generally getting lost in forests, caves, deserts, and everything in between.
I study the world’s bats, and how evolution has molded them into a group of superhero-like animals as spectacularly diverse as Batman’s gadgets.
As an evolutionary biologist, I try to understand all the processes that have shaped the crazy, spectacular, and bizarre lifeforms all around us on Earth. I focus on modern bats, a group that is known to all of us, feared and misunderstood by many, yet cryptic and mysterious to even many biologists. Bats are one of the most diverse groups of land mammals, filling an incredible amount of roles in our world’s ecosystems as natural pest control, predators, pollinators, seed dispersers, and sometimes even as parasites and drivers of disease. How did bats, which are mammals just like us, become this diverse? That is the focus of my research, and I use all sorts of data to try and answer that question: DNA sequences, live bats, and, most importantly, skull shapes. Bat skulls are extremely varied in shape, and all that shape variation reflects the different roles they can play in the wild. I hope to learn how bats became as diverse as they did by studying the evolution of their skull shape.
My Typical Day
I use X-ray beams to scan bat skulls and project evolutionary models of them onto supercomputers for analysis.
Most days, I dig through our large collection of mammals for exotic and unstudied bat species. When I find them, I take measurements on their skulls and bodies, and bring the skulls to our X-ray computed microtomography machine on campus. This fancy and advanced device bombards specimens with X-rays, and captures all the reflected beams with mirrors to convert solid objects into three-dimensional models on the computer. I use these models to look for relationships between skull shapes, and model evolution across the entire group of bats.
What I'd do with the prize money
Since most people find it hard to imagine just how diverse bats are, I will photocopy skulls using 3D printing technology to make replicas for teaching and outreach.
All the data I get from my CT scans can be fed directly into modern 3D printers, which can make nearly perfect replicas of any solid objects. For each different kind of bat – carnivores, insect eaters, nectar feeders, bloodsuckers, etc. – I will essentially use 3D printers to clone our rare bat skulls, to have replicas and models for education and teaching programs in my community. With enough money, I can make extremely accurate copies, and can even use these copies to design experiments for testing bite force, muscle strength, and other physical necessities of a bat’s life.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Loyal, extroverted, creative
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
Lived in the savanna in Kruger National Park, South Africa
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
What was your favourite subject at school?
What did you want to be after you left school?
Radio host and musician
Were you ever in trouble at school?
I’d be lying if I said I never was!
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
Musician or general entertainer
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
A life full of unexpected surprises, the happiness of my friends, and a personal chef
Tell us a joke.
A vampire bat returns to his cave roost one night covered in fresh blood. All his friends beg him to take them to this new, great site full of food. He flies them all out to a nearby meadow and says: “Do you see that tree over there?” They all say that they do, and he replies: “Good, because I didn’t!”