Photo credit to Daniella Rojas

Australian PhD student batty for bats

2 February, 2013, Danielle Sisson

“Oh, hello face, hello!” Shannon croons calmly to the torch-lit face of the tiny little bat she’s delicately unthreading from the net.

“It’s ok, I’m getting you out,” she reassures.

Gently untangling her captured bat, she carefully pulls out a fragile wing to show how fine and soft it is. She pats the bats furry little back before putting it into a calico bag to take back to university for her study.

Shannon Currie is 26 and into her first year of her PhD, studying torpor, a type of hibernation. And she is using bats to find out more.

Bats usually aren’t everyone’s thing, though for Shannon, there was a moment when she knew that she was hooked and wanted to work with these furry little nocturnal mammals.

“I went to the Kimberley [Australia] on a camping trip with my family and we went into a teeny-tiny cave,” she says.

“We were in this cave and we were going down a crevice. My brother and sister were climbing down and all these bats just came flying out over their heads, and my brother and sister were so freaked out. I just loved it! A bat landed on my leg and crawled up my body to my shoulder and it looked at me and I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is so cool! Don’t fly away, I want to touch it.’ And it just looked at me and then it took off and that was the coolest thing that has ever happened to me ever. And I was like [clicks her fingers], I’m working with bats.”

Bats are easy to work with

When questioned about why she chose bats to work with during both her honours and PhD studies, Shannon smiles and becomes even more animated.

“Cause they’re wonderful,” she explains.

“They’re so easy to work with if you love them. If you know how to read them then they’re the best animals ever because they are so smart and once you teach them how, particularly in torpor research, they’re brilliant because they just go into torpor straight away.

“This is going to sound so corny, but I just clicked with bats. From the word go, I’ve just had no problems with them and I think it’s just because I was so fascinated by them to begin with – you can talk to them, and tell them what to do.

“My supervisor was shocked, he was like, ‘How are you getting them, they’re not trying to fly away!’ They know they get fed, they go back in the bag, they go back in the cage and they get to fly and everything’s fine, and that’s the routine. And once you get the routine established, there are no problems.

“By the end of it, I remember with one of my bats, she finished eating and she looked at me and I could tell she was either going to fly or she was going to do what I said. I was like ‘Honey’, and I lifted up the bag and just went, ‘Inside,’ and she crawled into the bag! I wish I had it on camera because it was the best thing ever. I’m holding the bag open and I went ‘Honey, get in the bag,’ and she just went [sigh] and crawled in the bag and I was thinking why is there no one else here to witness this? And then I let her go like the next day.”

Shannon had hoped to get a job in England instead of spending 2009 doing her honours. She travelled over to London and did some field work, but came back to Australia two weeks before she was offered a job at London Zoo, to help with her recently injured mother at home.

“My Mum’s in a wheelchair,” she says.

“It happened in my last year of uni. She was a triathlete and she was training and she flipped over the front of her bike and so she’s quadriplegic. She’s very soft spoken, quiet and she doesn’t complain. When I was living there, we were involved in a lot more stuff, because clearly, I’m very outspoken, and I think it’s really important for her to be involved in a lot of the research that’s being done to further understand spinal cord injury and recovery.”

Shannon decided that she may as well do her honours in Science while she was back in Australia, and had one of her toughest years juggling her new role at home and her study load.

“I also stepped into the role of parent,” she said.

“It was very intense. I had to go home and cook dinner for my family, it had to be on the table at a certain time and then put my mum to bed and then come back to uni and keep working until like two in the morning. Then I had to get up early to get her out of bed in the mornings because you have to do catheters every four hours with someone who has no bladder control.”

A much needed break

Shannon took a much needed break after her honours year, doing a bit more travelling before returning to Australia. She is now completing her PhD in the same project she started in her honours, but this time at the University of New England in Armidale, NSW.

“It’s cardiorespiratory function of bats in torpor,” she says of her PhD project. This is how the heart and lungs react when bats go into a type of hibernation, which they can do during the day to save energy.

“I took the theory of my honours project and made it into a real project. My honours project was really flawed in so many ways, hence why I didn’t publish anything from it. That’s the reason I’m doing this as a PhD. Because I can’t leave things unfinished. I wanted to find the answers to the questions I was asking and so I wanted to keep doing this.”

Shannon’s respect for animal life goes further than just completing research on them. She has been a vegetarian for almost 14 years.

“I became a vegetarian when I was 13 because I didn’t want to kill animals,” she says.

“My dad has been a vegetarian since I was five, I ate half-vegetarian food most of my life. I’ve always been pro-animal rights and environmentally conscious.”

While she does have very strong beliefs of her own diet about what she will and won’t eat, Shannon has more of a problem with wasting parts of animals than the fact that other people eat meat.

“I’m just very much aware of the fact that to be a well-rounded human in health I should eat meat, but I don’t want to eat it and I don’t think I could ever go back to eating meat. I think if I ate it, I’d get sick.”

Shannon’s current chosen path of study works in well with her ideals about animals and their treatment. But what’s in the future for this 26-year old who has already lived in three different countries?

“I definitely think that academia’s where I want to be,” she says.

“I like the brilliance of research and that is that it’s so self-controlled.”

Her self-controlled study has her working about 60 to 70 hours a week. While she expects the workload to be high, she also sees plenty of opportunity with an academic research position in her future.

“The whole deal with academia, if you go into being a researcher, is that you will move,” she says.

“That was part of the reason why I chose to enter into academia as well. The fact that I can travel. Next stop might be South Africa or Canada. I’d like to live in Germany for a period of time.”

Photo credit to Daniella Rojas

PhD student Shannon Currie with one of her bats in her study cage at the University of New England, Australia.

Shannon may have not had the easiest path to get to where she is now. However, all her experiences in the past, her ability to work hard and her love and respect for her animals of study have made her a passionate young scientist. If Shannon decides her future lies in academia and gaining different experiences around the globe, she will make sure that she will get them.

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