Melissa Meierhofer is a Ph.D. candidate in Wildlife and Fisheries Science at Texas A&M and a research associate at A&M’s Natural Resources Institute. The recipient of a Fulbright Grant for the 2019-2020 academic year, she is currently living and studying in Finland. Her research focuses on a fungus-causing disease in bats called “white-nose syndrome,” which is spreading rapidly in North America. In Finland, she is working with other researchers to create mathematical models of the spread of the disease to assist the U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife Service as they try to save bat species. OGAPS caught up with Meierhofer for an update on her research and life in Finland.
Can you describe your research?
My research project is a study of white-nose syndrome in bats. White-nose syndrome is caused by a fungus called Pseudogymnoascus destructans, which grows in cool, damp environments, particularly in caves. Bats with the disease become more active, waking up more frequently and burning fat reserves they need to survive the winter. It is currently decimating populations of hibernating bats in North America.
How are you using your Fulbright award?
The Fulbright enabled me to travel to Finland to collaborate with Dr. Thomas Lilley, a mammologist at the Finnish Museum of Natural History. Dr. Lilley is supervising my work as I analyze data to create mathematical models for the spread of white-nose syndrome in North America. But I’m also involved in other projects on bats with researchers here, in the field and the lab. Since my Fulbright award is an exchange, my purpose for traveling is to learn from scholars, as well as share my research and knowledge with them.
How are Finnish scholars reacting to your work?
Interestingly enough, the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome in North America originated in Europe. Scientists believe it was transmitted to the U.S. by humans. And this happened recently. The first case of white-nose syndrome in bats in the U.S. was recorded in 2006 in New York state. So, the scholars I’ve met here are familiar with the fungus and the disease. They are interested in the spread patterns in the U.S. and what we’re doing to try and save our bat population. They’re also interested in comparing and discussing research methodologies.
Do bats in Texas have white-nose syndrome?
I have found the fungus in caves and culverts, but have no instances of the disease yet. We are still awaiting some lab results, though, so there could be infected bats in Texas.
How can your research help?
Scientists are developing treatments for white-nose syndrome, but there’s currently no cure. My research models how it spreads. The goal is to provide information that will help the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in their efforts to manage bat populations to limit their exposure to the fungus.
What made you interested in bats with this condition?
I was first interested in bat behavior. But when I began my master’s work I noticed that most people in the field were studying the disease. When I learned how urgent the disease problem is among bat populations, I wanted to get involved in research that could make a difference. And I still get to conduct behavioral observations because white-nose syndrome does affect bat behavior.
Can you explain how it alters their behavior?
It makes them behave strangely. They wake up when they should be hibernating. They fly in cold weather when their food source is scarce and during the day instead of at night.
Are there other implications from your research, beyond bats?
Modeling the spread of disease has implications beyond specific populations of affected species. Models can help to identify areas of interest for further research, surveys, and management, and this is important when there aren’t enough resources to survey all areas for bats. Declining bat populations also will have major consequences for agriculture. The bats contracting white-nose syndrome eat insects that carry disease and damage crops, saving millions of dollars for the agricultural industry and reducing the use of pesticides.
How’s life in Finland?
It’s a different culture, for sure. The biggest difference for me between Finnish and American culture is that people in Finland are quieter. I like to talk. I appreciate conversations—even based on small talk. Finnish people appreciate quiet. I’ve adjusted and maybe become more thoughtful or reflective, but I’ve also encouraged people—especially the people I work with—to share more. That’s the great thing about experiencing another culture: you learn from them and they learn from you.
What do you do there for fun?
The Fulbright Finland group was really generous in providing all fellowship recipients with museum cards, so we can visit museums in Finland for free. I’ve really taken advantage of that. The most culturally unique and fun thing to do in Finland, though, is visiting a sauna. Saunas are very popular here. And there’s a Finnish twist: You don’t just sit in sauna; you alternate between hot and cold. When you can’t stand the heat anymore, you dip into freezing water—if you are daring enough—or you can just step outside. I’ve even done this on a boat in northern Finland. You heat up in the boat’s sauna, then jump into the water through a hole in the ice! It’s a shock to your system, but refreshing and rejuvenating.
When will you return to Aggieland?
In May. I’m excited to defend my research in the summer and graduate in August!
How has your graduate experience at Texas A&M prepared you for this opportunity?
My program at A&M is really collaborative, so I’ve developed the skill to do research with others and share ideas to find solutions to problems. My department has also been generous with funding so I’ve been able to travel within the U.S. to present my research and network with others in my field. Not only has that helped advance my work, but it has also enabled me to meet others and build relationships. These experiences have definitely prepared me for the opportunity to study in Finland.
What advice you would give to your fellow grad students back in College Station about seeking funding to travel, conduct, and share your research?
I would just say to take every opportunity you can to travel and collaborate with others—and apply for grants and fellowships. I’m a first-generation college student and this is my first time to live and conduct research outside the U.S. I was unaware of the Fulbright and the application process until someone suggested it to me. So, reach out to your colleagues and see what’s out there. For me, this has been an amazing experience. I’ve gotten involved in other research projects here besides my own. I will be a co-publisher on at least two and maybe three or more academic publications. And international travel is not only culturally enriching, but it also sets you apart from your peers who don’t have that experience.
By Rob Dixon, Texas A&M University Office of Graduate and Professional Studies