Science, humanity, and everything in between.

This article is originally published in The Gettysburgian (June 2020).

Known for its town square, churches, antique stores, and pick-up trucks, central Pennsylvania’s Gettysburg is the quintessential American small town. It contains rich Civil War history and prides itself on the eponymous Gettysburg Address. Gettysburg also hosts 147 international students from across the globe, and they are enrolled at Gettysburg College — a small, residential liberal arts college that has resided in the northwest corner of the town since 1832.

As is the case with many small towns, Gettysburg — with its farms and four-wheelers — poses a range of challenges for foreigners. The closest Chipotle is a half-hour drive away, major grocery stores are far by foot, and the only bus that stops at the college runs once every hour. Despite the surrounding Americanness, however, most international students at Gettysburg College are able to find a sense of belonging within the college’s close-knit community. They eat meals with their American friends, live with their American roommates, complete group projects with their American classmates, and keep themselves busy with the ample curricular and extracurricular activities on campus.

But with the coronavirus engulfing America in March and the campus closing for remote learning, international students’ sense of belonging in this country is being challenged in new ways.

It was never my intent to settle in and have a life in the U.S.

Mai P. Trinh ’20

Mai P. Trinh ’20, a recent computer science graduate hailing from Vietnam, is currently experiencing many forms of exclusion. She had planned to work in the U.S. by participating in the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program — a short-term employment authorization that allows F-1 visa students to work in their field of study.

“It was never my intent to settle in and have a life in the U.S.,” said Trinh. “But I think having professional working experience in America would help me tremendously when I go back to Vietnam and find a job there.”

Knowing that finding a job as an international student wouldn’t be easy, even before the pandemic, Trinh had gone above and beyond to hunt for job opportunities. She went to networking events, sent out mass emails, consulted with career service advisors, and shadowed professionals in her field.

Nevertheless, for Trinh and millions of other graduating international students across the country seeking professional development opportunities, the somber job market caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the stringent immigration restrictions have made their hopes of working in the U.S. almost impossible.

Trinh received two internship offers before the pandemic — one from a start-up company in Boston and the other from a large company in Philadelphia. Both offers were rescinded due to hiring freezes, and her on-site interviews with two other companies have also been canceled.

Mai P. Trinh ’20, an international student from Vietnam, was visiting the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona right before the college announced that it would extend spring break due to the COVID-19 outbreak (Photo courtesy of Mai P. Trinh, for The Gettysburgian)

Despite her difficulty finding employment during this crisis, Trinh must leave the U.S. if she fails to secure a job by the end of the summer. Under the current rules set by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) — an agency within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that approves and regulates foreign students’ employment authorizations — international students have, in aggregation, up to 90 days to be unemployed after their OPT program starts. And once their unemployment has reached this limit, they must leave the country.

Notwithstanding the pleas from many international students and advocacy groups, the DHS has resisted extending the unemployment limits for international students on OPT during this extraordinary time.

Frustrated and exhausted from a job-hunting failure that is largely out of her control, Trinh is now residing in South Philadelphia with a friend who kindly accommodated her when Gettysburg College closed. Contrary to her previous plans, Trinh has decided to return to Vietnam as soon as the Vietnamese border reopens. She says that she no longer feels like she belongs in this country.

Unfortunately, Trinh isn’t the only graduating international student struggling to keep future plans in the U.S. intact while overcoming the barriers imposed by both the federal government and COVID-19. When the College decided to close the campus for the rest of the semester and switch to remote learning in March, San K. Luc ’20, a recent graduate in biology and East Asian studies who is also from Vietnam, was away from campus on spring break.

It was an incredibly stressful time.

San K. Luc ’20

“My boyfriend had to FaceTime me the entire time to help me pack up my belongings virtually,” Luc explained, recalling the fiasco.

On top of the sudden chaos of a school closure, she found her situation more despairing when all seven of her graduate school applications were rejected. Luc had worked hard throughout college — she maintained good grades, worked as a research assistant for years, and spent three summers doing research, both on campus and at the Mayo Clinic.

Hoping to stay and work in the U.S. to boost her chances of getting into a graduate school during the next application cycle, she scrambled to apply for OPT and find employment. She too would have to leave the country if she did not find a job 90 days after her OPT start date.

San K. Luc ’20, a Vietnamese international student, recently graduated from Gettysburg College with degrees in biology and East Asian studies (Photo courtesy of San K. Luc ’20, for The Gettysburgian)

“It was an incredibly stressful time,” said Luc, currently staying with a friend in North Carolina. “The most frustrating part was that, even though you knew you were doing everything you could, the chance of getting a job during the pandemic is still very little.”

She was verbally offered a research technician position in her research advisor’s lab. However, with the College’s hiring freeze and furloughing of staff members due to financial difficulties, Luc wasn’t sure if the offer still stood. But just weeks before her graduation, she got the good news that the research technician offer had finally been approved. With little time to catch her breath, Luc now worries about her only employment being affected by USCIS’s delayed approval of her employment authorization. Many international students experienced this issue last year.

The pandemic has not only devastated graduating international students — it also has placed a tremendous mental toll on the underclassmen.

I definitely feel pessimistic about my future, I don’t know what will happen to me when I graduate.

Srey Nich Vunn ’22

Srey Nich Vunn ’22, a first-generation college student studying economics and international affairs, came to Gettysburg from a small village in Cambodia. Both her grandparents and parents survived the Cambodian genocide.

When the pandemic began to cause the unraveling of many services across the U.S., Vunn found herself on a near-empty campus during spring break after her college-organized trip to Puerto Rico was canceled. She attempted to go back to Cambodia to stay with her family, but her first flight was canceled and the second flight required a health clearance form that she could not easily obtain. Luckily, she was able to stay with an American host family through SHE-CAN, the nonprofit organization that first helped her get into colleges in the United States.

“I definitely feel pessimistic about my future, I don’t know what will happen to me when I graduate,” said Vunn. She has witnessed many of her graduating international friends struggling to land the OPT jobs she herself wants after graduation.

Vunn had also worried about being able to find an internship this summer. It has been historically difficult for international students to find off-campus internship opportunities, with many programs being restricted by law to only accept U.S. citizens or permanent residents. With many companies and organizations instituting across-the-board hiring freezes nationwide and the cancellation of many on-campus internships, it has become even harder for international students to hone the skills they have learned in college courses.

Srey Nich Vunn (right), a first-generation college student studying economics and international affairs, came to Gettysburg from Cambodia (Photo courtesy of Srey Nich Vunn ’22, for The Gettysburgian)

Against all odds, Vunn received a summer internship offer from Vital Voices, a D.C. based nonprofit that advocates for women around the globe. She hopes to apply this experience towards her goal of becoming a human rights lawyer, and would like to return to Cambodia to help other women to have a better education and life.

“It is discouraging that this is the world that we are living in,” Vunn commented about the increasingly hostile environment toward international students and other minority groups. “But, in a way, it really motivates me to work hard and change it.”

Regardless of the adversity they’re facing, the pandemic has not stopped international students from helping the Gettysburg community. In early April, tens of thousands of face masks, donated by Chinese international students’ families, began to arrive in Gettysburg from China.

The only thing that seems to matter now are people’s lives.

Lionel Hong ’12

Brad Lancaster, the Director of International Student Services at Gettysburg College, was impressed with how fast the masks arrived and how many there were.

According to Lancaster, Chinese international students’ parents had reached out to him over WeChat — a popular Chinese messaging app — to express their interest in donating masks to Gettysburg. In March, after consulting with the Health Center, he decided to accept these mask donations for the community.

“As soon as I sent out the message, the parents immediately started to work together,” he said. “And I woke up to over 500 messages in the WeChat group the next day.”

Over the course of three or four shipments, the college received more than 10,000 masks from the Chinese international students’ parents, which was enough to meet not only the College’s needs but also those of the retirement homes, police force, food pantries, and various other organizations within Gettysburg and the surrounding community.

Chinese international students’ families have donated over 10,000 masks to Gettysburg College (Photo courtesy of Brad Lancaster, for The Gettysburgian)

“If you look at Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, you will find the special callings for unity and human equality,” said Lionel Hong, a Gettysburg College international alumnus who graduated in 2012. Hong currently works in his hometown of Beijing, operating a start-up company that designs and manufactures sports apparel. Using his expertise in international trade, he volunteered much of his time consolidating the donated masks from the parents all over China and filing paperwork with Chinese Customs to oversee shipment to Gettysburg.

It wasn’t easy for these parents to source the masks — they were still high-demand commodities in China, despite relative COVID-19 containment. “The parents have spent a lot of energy to source large quantities of masks within a short amount of time for this donation,” said Hong.

Hong feels that these efforts were well worth it, and explained that the pandemic has changed his perspective on a lot of things. Things that he used to think mattered suddenly don’t matter anymore — people can make dedicated office spaces in their homes and can communicate clearly without physically showing up in meetings.

“The only thing that seems to matter now,” he said, “are people’s lives.”

To many people, the stories of these international students during the pandemic — their struggles, their hard work, their resilience, and their strong sense of generosity — are what actually make Gettysburg quintessentially American.

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This article is originally published on (November 2019).
This November, I had the opportunity to attend the Science Writers 2019 in State College, PA., as a National Association of Science Writers (NASW) Travel Fellow.

Early-stage science advances, often developed in animal models, are not as frequently or veritably reported because of their lack of clout. This can be a problem because incremental advancements are an important part of science that galvanize major scientific breakthroughs.

An experienced panel of journalists and public information officers (PIOs) convened at the Science Writers 2019 panel “Of mice and media: Rethinking how we cover basic science” to share their insights and tips for reporting on basic science or early advances.

“It is not that scientific communities don’t want these findings out there, they just don’t want them to be overstated or over-sensationalized,” said panel mediator Michele Berger, science news officer at the University of Pennsylvania.

Filling the translational gap

“The key is to develop a story that can fill the translational gap,” said Karen Kreeger, director of communications at Monell Chemical Senses Center and former senior science communications manager at the University of Pennsylvania Health System.

Kreeger offered strategies such as blending pre-clinical lab work into a larger story, focusing the press release on incremental studies, and deploying multi-media platforms, such as images and videos, to enhance communications of basic science research.

Painting the big picture

For Alexandra Sifferlin, a deputy editor at Medium’s health and wellness publication Elemental and a contributing editor at Medium’s science and tech publication oneZero, covering basic science effectively entails communicating a broader trend.

Sifferlin rarely isolates one basic science study to cover. Instead, she reports studies in concert to construct a bigger picture of certain scientific fields. When composing stories on drug development, for instance, she takes the opportunity to educate the public on the fundamental science behind developing a drug. She poses questions to scientists like: “Why is it so hard to develop a drug?” or “Why do you study a specific pathway?”

Translation is the key

For Vanessa Wasta, communications manager for basic science at Johns Hopkins Medicine, translation is key to delivering basic science news to the public. Wasta and her team sift through a high volume of basic science studies from three institutions and more than 250 faculty members and identify studies that need to be covered.

“I can’t necessarily make people interested in basic science,” Wasta said. “However, I can make people interested in good stories.”

In order to compose good stories, science writers need to provide ample context to the audience to help them to understand the science behind the story, Wasta said. They can also use narrative tactics, such as developing interesting ledes or adopting vivid analogies, to make the stories more readable.

Risks and rewards

Ron Winslow, a freelance writer and former health and science reporter at The Wall Street Journal, emphasized the risks and rewards involved in covering early science innovations. To that point, he shared two anecdotal stories from his WSJ career: his reporting efforts on an early drug development that failed clinical trials, and his coverage of tinman genes, a notable scientific advancement.

Despite the risks of covering early science development that may eventually fail, Winslow still encouraged science journalists to “pull those strings and see where they lead.”

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This article is originally published in Medium’s The Coffeelicious by Gettysburg College (April 2018).
Photo by Pete Vogel

People say life is the best classroom. One year out from college, I couldn’t agree more. Through this year, I have learned many things — things I wish I had known before I threw my cap up in the air, things I wish somebody had written out to caution me before I walked across the podium. And here, I want to spoil them for you, hoping to help you become more prepared for your post-graduation life.

You are more prepared than you think.

Many seniors aren’t confident finding a job at first. I was exactly like you. I spent hours, if not days, staring at my resume, ruminating how to make my only award look more like a ‘Nobel-Prize-of-some-sort,’ or how to word my club president experience so it sounds more like “The President” instead.

Then I learned, and most of you will probably learn, too, regardless of how fancy the job description reads, your first job will be an entry-level job. It will largely involve repetitive work. You will probably never need to apply your “leadership skills” or “crisis management skills”, which you promised to contribute to your “dynamic team” on your cover letter.

With that said, not a lot people are trying to “steal” the jobs that you are applying for. For people with more experience than you, your job is probably too “low” and doesn’t pay well enough. For people with similar experience as you, there are many entry-level jobs to help disperse the competition.

But I am not saying you don’t have to work hard in college. Quite the opposite — you still have to make every effort in college to maintain a decent GPA and actively get involved in curricular/extra-curricular activates. I promise that your resume will have a better chance of standing out during human resources screening and get passed to the hiring manager. But once you’re in the door, believe me — you’re more qualified for the job then you think. So be confident.

There is rarely a warm welcome to the adult world.

Remember the weeklong orientation you had before starting college? Remember the smiling upper-class volunteers who greeted you with thumb-ups as soon as you pulled in the parking lot and raced to help you move in your room? Unfortunately, when you toss your caps, those special treatments will also be tossed away.

There will be no buffer zone for you to switch to the adult life. So be mentally prepared. Your landlord will start to collect the rent as soon as you move in. Your bills will come in your mailbox like lost doves finally returning home. Even though some work places hold orientation sessions, you will most likely be overwhelmed by “blah, blah, blahs” such as health insurance premiums, 401K plans, while being “brainwashed” by the orientation officer with their company missions, philosophy, achievements, and expectations.

It’s better to graduate college with a plan.

So far this is the most important and valuable lesson I have learned from my gap year.

Many graduating seniors decide to take gap years to help figure out what they want to do next. I was definitely one of them. But keep in mind, sometimes it can be trickier to find out your career goals during your gap years than at school. After all, taking gap years is not quite as comparable as wine tasting — it’s not practical to have a taste of multiple jobs until you find your favorite one in just a couple years. Once you graduate — unless you are lucky — you won’t find yourself in utopia, like at college, where professors and friends are readily available to you to offer advice or a helping hand. So, the task of figuring out your life is largely your own.

If you really don’t know what you want to do when you graduate, try to leave as much as wiggle room as possible when looking for your first job. Try to look for jobs that are not so specific but rather involve multiple disciplines. And try to avoid jobs that specifically ask for a long commitment so you don’t get stuck in a position you don’t enjoy. Also, try looking for positions that are more supportive for career development such as internships or jobs in an academic setting.

Keep the learning momentum going.

If you think four years of college passes by so quickly, life after graduation will fly by just as fast, if not faster. Therefore, for those of you who plan to pursue a higher degree after college or move on to a higher-level job, it is important to get yourself prepared before you start wondering where all the time has gone. Don’t treat your gap years as a break, but rather an extension of college. When you have more free time after work or during the weekends, spend some amount of time, even five minutes, studying for whatever tests (such as the GRE) are required for your next stage.

As I also mentioned earlier, your first job might be not as educational as you think it would be. If so, propose some passionate projects to your boss — projects that not only create benefits for your employer but also help you build a competitive background. Because again, once you graduate college, achieving your career goals is very much your own responsibility.

Life after graduation is exciting, and you should look forward to it.

I want to conclude on another important thing that I have learned from this past year. That is, life after graduation is absolutely amazing, regardless of what people say. It’s true that you might have to worry about paying off your bills using your slender income. It’s true that the expectations of you have been switched from student to labor — one being receiver, and the other being provider. It’s true that you still have to work hard after you graduate to help you achieve your next career goal. But at the same time, you will also have more freedom to do whatever you want in life, as no more homework will bug you after business hours. You will have the opportunities to know more people other than your quaint social circle at school. And (alcohol wise) you finally can get to go to happy hours — as a “real” adult — after work with friends and co-workers.

Lives before and after graduation are two parallel worlds, each with their own beauty. So my final advice to you? Do Great Work!

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Directed by me, with the production help from (the wonderful) Ed Hille, a veteran staff photographer at the Philadelphia Inquirer, this video is dedicated to Helen C. Davies, a 93-year-old Professor of Microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. You can read my profile on Helen here.

I want to thank the Microbiology Department at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine for the generous support, which made this project possible.

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This article is originally published in the University of Pennsylvania Cell and Molecular Biology Student Newsletter (August 2018).  

EVERY FRIDAY MORNING, Helen C. Davies, a 93-year-old Professor of Microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, sets off punctually at 7:45 a.m. to the infectious disease management meeting at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Helen C. Davies, a 93-year-old professor of Microbiology, holding a picture of her from the 1960s.

Helen, who insists people call her by her first name, can’t remember how long she has been attending these meetings. “For a mighty long time,” according to her.

But what she can remember is that she used to be able to walk freely to these meetings -then with a cane. Now, she wheels.

“How are you today, Helen?” greets a senior physician in the elevator concourse.

“I’m good, dear,” she replies, while another physician exits the elevator to make space for her and her wheelchair.

In a meeting room full of white-coated physicians who pride themselves on their career—saving lives, those who have been Helen’s own students are in awe of Helen and her own career—a lifelong educator.

Helen has taught over 10,000 medical students for more than half a century. She has won the annual Excellent in Teaching Award 16 times. And her portrait, which can be found in Johnson Pavilion, was done by Nelson Shanks—whose other commissions include Pope John Paul II, President Ronald Reagan, President Bill Clinton, and Princess Diana.

Despite her innumerable contributions to the university, Helen has never stopped perfecting her teaching. Her infectious disease class, where she sings to students, has helped generations of medical students learn about pathogens in a witty way.

Out of a book full of microbe song sheets she has composed, “Leprosy” is her all-time favorite.

It was written to the tune of The Beatles’ “Yesterday”:

Bits and pieces falling off of me
But it isn’t the toxicity
It’s just neglect of injury
I’m not half the man I used to be
Can’t feel anything peripherally
From swollen nerves, hypersensitivity
Why don’t lerpae grow in vitro we cannot say
In vivo they grow very slow, once in 12 days
Hard to get,
But the stigma hasn’t faded yet
Don’t keep an armadillo as a pet,
Don’t forget…

THE DAUGHTER OF A RABBI, Helen was born in Manhattan, New York, in 1925. After growing up in the Great Depression, Helen went to Brooklyn College, where she received her bachelor’s degree in chemistry during World War II. She graduated from college when she was 19, as the only female in her class.

“I never had trouble finding dates back in college, since I was the only girl,” Helen quipped.

Helen received her master’s degree in biochemistry from the University of Rochester in 1950, followed by her doctorate in physical biochemistry from the University of Pennsylvania in 1960.

She has stayed at Penn since then.

Helen working in her office at University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, where she is believed to be the oldest full-time faculty member.

Her husband, Robert E. Davies, a biochemist and a Benjamin Franklin Professor and University Professor at Penn’s veterinary school, died in 1993 while mountain climbing in Scotland.

Soon after her husband’s death, Helen moved into the Quad, living with hundreds of freshmen. “I just love the students so much, I want to be part of them,” Helen says.

Helen is the eldest and the first woman faculty master, the highest administrator on-site, for Ware College House. She leads both the Women in Science and Infectious Disease programs. Her apartment, on the second floor of Ware College House, has two bedrooms and a big living room that Helen adores since “it can host as many students as possible when they come to visit me.”

Like most students in the building, Helen also has a roommate—Emilie Anderson, who graduated from Penn in 2005.

Before her graduation, Emilie came to Helen for advice—she was offered an incredible job opportunity…, but it didn’t pay well. Should she keep looking for other jobs, or take this precious opportunity?

“Helen told me, ‘Sweetheart, if this job is what you love to do, you should take it! Don’t worry about the money. I have a spare bedroom in my apartment, and you can crash with me if that can relieve your financial burden,’” Emilie said. “And I never moved out—it’s been 15 years.”

Like Emilie, many others, especially women and other minorities in the Penn community and beyond, have also been infected by Helen’s love.

Robert Ross, one of the few African American pre-med students on campus in the 1960s, persisted in medicine because of Helen’s constant attention and encouragement. More than two decades later, Dr. Ross has served as the Philadelphia Health Commissioner and is now the CEO and President of the California Endowment, a major health foundation in California.

During the 1970s, Helen taught a 20-week biology course to 20 African American gang leaders as part of the Urban Leadership Training Program, hoping to bring more opportunities to underrepresented communities.

“To talk about Helen without mentioning her contribution to the women and minority communities is just diminishing,” said Susan Weiss, who is also a Professor of Microbiology. “I mean think about it—she marched with Martin Luther King at Selma, during the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s.” Before Dr. Weiss’s arrival in the 1980s, Helen had been the only female faculty member in the Microbiology Department since its establishment in the 1970s.

HELEN NOT ONLY infects people with her passion for her career but also with her love of life.

Just two years ago, at age 91, in her wheelchair, Helen went on a trip with Emilie traversing eight countries, from Southeast Asia to the Middle East, in 20 days.

“Apparently, not only people who know Helen love her, the entire world loves her,” Emilie laughed. “When we were in Burma, I was taking pictures… and I turned around, saw a group of Buddhist monks carrying Helen and her wheelchair all the way up to the top of the monument. And what’s amazing was that they were communicating in languages that neither of them could understand.”

“And when we were in Israel, Helen started chatting with this young, handsome museum guard in Hebrew. And the guard opened the museum just for Helen even though it was closed that day,” Emilie continued laughing.

Only until recent years did Helen start to ease her workload—meaning not leaving for work at 6:00 a.m. and returning home at 11:00 p.m. She now spends most of her day reading in her apartment—sometimes a book a day or sometimes an entire weekly Science Magazine subscription—with the company of “Alexa”, who turns on the lights and plays music for her.

On the weekends, Helen and Emilie Uber to restaurants for lunch, followed by a movie at AMC, just like many students on campus. Or they shop for clothes at thrift stores. They often host parties in their apartment, such as the midnight pancake party, which makes sure “these students would have something in their stomach before getting drunk.”

When asked when she would retire, Helen smiled, “Never.”

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Newsworthy: a novel, implantable robotic sleeve that can support a patient’s failing heart.

Harvard University engineers developed a soft, implantable robotic sleeve that can support heart function for patients suffering from heart failure. The sleeve-shaped robot—designed by Ellen Roche from Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and her team—mimics the form and function of a mammalian heart and can be implanted around a failing heart to offer mechanical support. For decades, heart pumps have been used to aid individuals with weakened heart function: the device takes blood from the heart and pumps it to the rest of the body, as a healthy heart would. Patients with implanted heart pumps, however, have been required to take long-term blood-thinning medications to reduce the risk of blood clotting and other complications, due to contact between blood and device surfaces. The advantage of Roche’s team’s design, hence, is that the robotic sleeve does not contact blood, eliminating the need for anti-blood-clotting therapy and reducing the risk of device-associated complications. Also preceding previous efforts in the field, the robotic sleeve, which mimics the outer two layers of the mammalian heart muscle, is able to provide coherent and synchronized assistance to a failing heart. The team tested their robotic design on pig models with acute heart failure, and the assessments have shown promising results. Although further testing for long-term practicality is still indispensible, this robotic sleeve could potentially provide a new approach to help restore people’s compromised heart function in the near future.

Learn more:

“Soft robotic sleeve supports heart function” – Science Translational Medicine  


“Are blood clots in patients with heart-assist pumps decreasing or on the rise in 2015?” – Science Daily

“Soft robot helps the heart beat” – The Harvard Gazette

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HUANJIA ZHANG: Many people in Pennsylvania may have noticed that, nowadays, it is not easy to encounter bats any more at night during the summer. My guest today has spent years working with bats in Pennsylvania, and he will talk to us about the story behind the dramatic declination of bat populations in Pennsylvania.

Mike Scafini is the endangered mammal specialist of the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Mike works with all non-game mammals including everything from bats to Northern Flying Squirrels, Allegheny woodrats, water shrews and other small mammals that people don’t normally think of when it comes to the Pennsylvania wildlife.

Hey Mike, how are you today?

MIKE SCAFINI: Pretty good, how are you doing?

HUANJIA ZHANG: I am good, thank you! Thanks for joining me today.

So, at the beginning at the talk, I want to start with “misunderstanding”. Perhaps, no other mammals in the Northeast are as misunderstood as bats. Because of their dark, small, flying and nocturnal features, bats, unfortunately, have been considered vicious animals that bite and can carry diseases. Could you please tell us whether these rumors about bats are true?

MIKE SCAFINI: Well… yea, there are a lot of misconceptions about bats. From you know all the horror movies you see, and the things you see on the news. But actually up close, bats are pretty cute. You mentioned drinking blood, that’s vampire bats, that’s central and South America.

We owe a lot to bats, they are the only predators of night flying insects. I have seen a lot of different figures saying bats can eat 45 insects in a single evening, which equals to a million insects in an entire year. So, the agriculture industry in PA owes a lot to bats. They eat your crop pests and they eat all your nuisance pests like flies and mosquitos that people don’t want around the summer time and so yea… we owe a lot to bats and they are really not scary once you see what they are all about and see them up close.

HUANJIA ZHANG: There are nine species of bats commonly living in Pennsylvania. Among the nine species of bats, six of them, which include the little brown bat, big brown bat, eastern pipistrelle bat, northern long-eared bat, Indiana bat, and eastern small-footed bat, are short distance hibernating bats, meaning that they don’t make long migratory trips when winter comes. Instead, they will hibernate in Pennsylvania or in adjacent states. The rest of our bat species, which are silver-haired bat, eastern red bat, and hoary bat, in contrast, will migrate to the south when winter approaches, some birds.

The population of hibernating bats in Pennsylvania, has dramatically declined over the past decade.

MIKE SCAFINI: Back to the six species again, we have three of them; well actually four of them; are actually 99% declined.

HUANJIA ZHANG: The terrible drop in hibernating bats in Pennsylvania, and along the entire east coast of North America is primarily caused by a new bat disease called white nose syndrome.

MIKE SCAFINI: White nose is a bat that’s been infected with Pseudogymnoascus destructans, which is a fungus and it’s believed to be transferred from Europe. It is proposed that it came from humans that went caving to Europe and brought it back to New York State. And since then, it spread up and down the east cost and moved its way westward even up into Canada. Bats that get infected with this fungus, it irritates them when they are hibernating. So, they become dehydrated, they wake up more often, and oftentimes they will fly out in the middle of winter when it’s cold and there is no insects to eat and that’s primarily the cause of all these deaths.

I have a figure here in front me that shows our hibernacula surveys: it compared those sites that we checked before white nose and we also have surveys after white nose in PA. So each year, we survey more sites, each winter. And so we have more sites to compare with the pre-white nose years. And each year four of our species: little brown, Indiana, long-eared, and tri-colored have really not rebounded. Their numbers, for examples, we have Altenburg County in central part of the PA; we have a site called canoe-creek mine. It had at one point hit a high of 34,000 bats, and now we are at between 70 and 80 total.

HUANJIA ZHANG: Unfortunately, there is no cure for white nose syndrome for bats right now, but scientists are working hard to find the cure.

Mike Scafini, an endangered mammal specialist of the PA Game Commission, is descending into a cave to conduct a bat survey.

MIKE SCAFINI: There is actually; we had an interesting experiment that’s worth mentioning. There are kinda two different things and I will tell you the one we are more involved with—it’s called PEG 8000, Polyethalglyco 8000. I guess it’s found in the pharmaceutical community a lot. It’s what it does is to trick the fungi into thinking its water stressed, so it doesn’t grow. And we kinda set up an experiment with three cages, seven bats in each cage. One was control, one had this PEG 8000 applied to one of their wings and the other one had the PEG applied to the roost itself on the wall. And what we saw was the one that we applied to the wing it didn’t make any difference, it still got the PD fungus, it didn’t have any effect. And the one we applied to the roost, they were fine; they didn’t pick up the spore. So, we were thinking the PEG 8000 could be almost a roost cleaning application. It would be near impossible to treat a whole cave, but being that bats are creature of habits, they go back to some of the same spots in the cave. So if we could treat maybe the main spots where they go each winter, where they all congregate together, we may have beyond something as first.

HUANJIA ZHANG: So far we have talked about the decline of hibernating bats, what about the non-hibernating bats? Are they also being threatened?

MIKE SCAFINI: We also have the migratory bats, and they are being hit by wind farms. That’s part of what I did my graduate work on. There is a wind farm in Schuylkill county where I did what they called post-construction mortality surveys. And just an estimate of a roughly 12/13 turbine wind farm is killing 500 or more bats every summer. So, there have been different ideas of why that is: they are following the top where they think that the turbine is a tree to roost on. But so far, they haven’t come up with…they come up with some ways to help slow the turbine blades when wind speeds are low, which is when bats typically fly, and the turbine isn’t creating that much of energy anyway. So they come up with some different way to curtail the impact, but between white nose for the hibernating bats and turbines for migratory bats, and then just the normal fact that bats are really slow reproducers—most of their species only have one pup per year. Big browns and red bats can have two, but for the most part, with this kind of decline it is hard for them to rebound. Just from natural death and all these other factors, that’s been a pretty steady decline.

HUANJIA ZHANG: Sometimes bats come into our backyards or into the house. What should people do if bats visit their home?

MIKE SCAFINI: The bats in homes is something that we more see as a problem in the summer. I get emails left and right in the summer time: people that have bats in their homes and they want them out, or bats in their barn. Essentially, bats form maternity colonies in the summer to raise their pups, so, when it’s the hottest months of the year, that’s when females are with their pups—June and July. When you see them in your home, there are different things that you can do. One option is to call us and we can try to direct you to someone—cuz we can’t really response to all calls, we can kinda guide you through the process—we can it eviction and exclusion. Eviction is where you put a one-way door, say, if you know where the opening is, if they are coming into your attic, there will be a door where they can fly out but not back in. The only problem with that is you can’t do it when there are flyless pups. So, like I said, they are forming maternity colonies. So, there is a window time in the middle of the summer that this won’t work—you’ll be trapping bats inside and the adults fly out to feed the pups are gonna try whatever they will to get back in, but otherwise, it’s a really good technique—once all the bats fly through that door, you can the seal any openings.

HUANJIA ZHANG: As Pennsylvania residents, we are constantly hearing depressing stories of endangered or threatened wildlife and diseases that affect bats. What do you think are things we can do here in central PA to help protect bat populations?

MIKE SCAFINI: Some of the big things that you can do, hum, the one like I mentioned is the Appalachian bat count. That gives us a handle on not only where the bats are, a good majority of the year during the summer, but also if they are reproducing. Because the ABC counts are designed to count before and after they (bats) have their pups. So, we can actually see how much they are reproducing. So, kinda give us this idea in the handle on bat populations, where they are, that’s probably the biggest that they can do, is participating that program.

Opening/ending Song:

Leaving Song by Barefoot McCoy

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IT WAS AN UNSEASONABLY WARM DAY in late February. Hibernating squirrels were out looking for food. Birds, too, began to twitter on the telephone wires. I, zig-zagging along the narrow central Pennsylvanian country roads, was driving to meet up with Mike Scafini, an endangered mammal specialist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, to talk about Pennsylvania’s vanishing bats.

Mike greeted me as soon as I walked through the automatic door of the Pennsylvania Game Commission building.

“How are you today?” he asked, while giving me a sturdy handshake.

Mike—a tall, slim, 30-some-year-old fella with a thick dark beard, short hair, and a pair of thin-wire glasses—is a wildlife biologist for the PA Game Commission. His job is to manage all non-game mammals, such as northern flying squirrels, woodrats, and of course, bats, across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

The Game Commission compound itself is interesting. Sitting on the outskirts of the state capital, Harrisburg, the exterior resembles something between a DMV building and a middle school auditorium. The inside, however, is an eerily harmonious combination of a natural history museum, a country pub, and the visitor center of a national park: green carpet, wooden benches, deer heads mounted on the wall, various wildlife taxidermy staged in giant glass cabinets, a canoe in the center of the lobby, a TV showing animal videos on loop, and exhibitions displaying law enforcement officer uniforms.

“When people think of the Game Commission,” Mike told me, “they usually think of elk or deer or bear; but here [at the Game Commission], we are actually also in charge of small mammals that people don’t usually think of as Pennsylvania wildlife.”

“That’s why I am here today: to talk to you about bats,” I agreed that most people I know had little awareness of these small creatures in their local environment.

THERE ARE NINE SPECIES OF BATS found in Pennsylvania: little brown bat, big brown bat, eastern pipistrelle bat, northern long-eared bat, Indiana bat, eastern small-footed bat, silver-haired bat, eastern red bat, and hoary bat.

Among the nine species of bats, silver-haired, red, and hoary bats are migratory bats, meaning they—like some birds in North America—migrate to the south when winter approaches. The rest of the species are short-distance hibernating bats, meaning they don’t make long migratory trips when winter comes. Instead, they hibernate in Pennsylvania or in adjacent states.

The most common species in Pennsylvania nowadays, according to Mike, is the big brown bat.  When a person sees a bat in Pennsylvania, it is most likely the big brown bat.

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For states like Pennsylvania, which depend heavily on agriculture, bats are extremely important for the economy. Bats are the state’s primary night-flying predator of insects, protecting people and agriculture from pests. Some research shows that a single bat can forage as many as 500 insects in an hour, which equals  3,000 insects every night. A colony of 150 big brown bats, the most common bat species in Pennsylvania, can consume approximately  38,000 cucumber beetles, 16,000 June bugs, 19,000 stinkbugs, and 50,000 leafhoppers. And by devouring the adult beetles, bats can also prevent 18 million corn rootworms from hatching in a single summer.

“The Pennsylvania agriculture industry owes a lot to bats,” said Mike, while pointing at a figure from a 2011 study published in Science. The figure was captioned: “Estimated economic value of bats to Pennsylvania farmers…Bats can save farmers $74 per acre—and millions of dollars each year—by eating bugs that can ruin a harvest.”

THE DESTINY OF HIBERNATING BATS in Pennsylvania, like the destiny of their peers across the east side of North America, has become catastrophic, because of a newly discovered bat disease called White-nose Syndrome.

Since its first discovery in the U.S. in February 2006, White-nose Syndrome has spread rapidly across the eastern states and provinces of the United States and Canada, wiping out millions of hibernating bat population. The first sign of White-nose Syndrome in Pennsylvania was recorded around the winter of 2008, and since then, the population of hibernating bats in Pennsylvania has been dramatically declining.

Tri-colored bat with visible signs of WNS from Cumberland Gap National Historic Park. Photo from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

“Of the six [hibernating] species [common in Pennsylvania],” Mike explained, “we have four of them close to, or approaching, ninety-nine percent [declination].”

“Jeez…ninety-nine percent?” I couldn’t believe what I had just heard.

“Yes…it’s a lot of bats.” Mike shook his head.

He went on to show me another figure from surveys he conducted by comparing the winter bat species population at the same sites in 2013 and 2016, which were before and after the White-nose Syndrome outbreak. In the graph, the populations of little brown, Indiana, northern long-eared, and tri-colored bats have declined almost one hundred percent.

“And the number of bats has not rebounded,” Mike added.

THE FUNGUS THAT CAUSES White-nose Syndrome in bats is called Pseudogymnoascus destructans, a cold-loving fungus that can infect and colonize the bats’ skin. This fungus is native to Europe but not to North America. Scientists have speculated that cavers who went to Europe for caving brought this fungus back and inoculated this invasive pathogen into the caves in New York State.

During hibernation, bats reduce their metabolic rate and lower their body temperature to save energy, which offers the opportunity for the fungus to live, grow, and reproduce. Bats infected with white-nose syndrome often have visible white fungal growth on their muzzles and wings (hence the name) and become irritated and dehydrated. As a result, they wake up and fly out more often during the cold winter while there are no insects to eat. And this has become the primary cause of death for bats infected with White-nose Syndrome.

Scanning electron micrograph of G. destructans culture isolated from a Little Brown Bat. Photo by Deborah J. Springer

Despite the fact that scientists have been working around the clock to find a cure for White-nose Syndrome in bats, the remedy still remains a mystery. Nevertheless, there is some hope in promising treatment, which was recently discovered by scientists and might be able to end this disease for bats.

“There is actually an interesting experiment that is worth mentioning,” Mike said. “It’s called PEG-8000.”

PEG stands for polyethylene glycol, and it is a class of chemical compounds that have a wide range of medical, chemical, biological, and industrial uses. PEG-8000 is one specific type of PEG that can cause microbes to think that they are deficient of water, thus tricking them into slowing growth. Plus, because PEG-8000 is non-toxic and chemically stable in fungi, it is considered as an ideal compound to stop White-nose Syndrome by hindering the growth of Pseudogymnoascus destructans—the fungus that causes White-nose Syndrome. Based on what Mike described, when scientists applied PEG-8000 to the wall of the roost, bats in the experiment were able to avoid picking up the Pseudogymnoascus destructans spores.

“This indicates PEG-8000 could be used as a roost cleaning application,” Mike explained. “And being that bats are creatures of habit—they go back to the same spots in a cave in the winter. If we can treat these spots where bats congregate, we may have something.”

THE SPREAD OF WHTE-NOSE SYNDROME can be caused by physical contact between healthy bats and infected bats, or by bats picking up the fungus from the surface of the cave where they hibernate. Human activities in the caves have exacerbated the spread the disease by introducing the fungus from one cave to another or by inadvertently carrying the fungus on shoes, clothing, or gear. (Just like the fungus is believed to have been introduced to North America to begin with.)

Therefore, Pennsylvania government agencies, such as the Game Commission, have strictly implemented the decontamination protocols released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to minimize their chance of spreading white-nose syndrome among bats when working in the field.

“We are working closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and one big step was the decontamination protocol that [the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service] put out,” Mike explained.

Therefore, PA government agencies such as the PA Game Commission has also strictly implemented decontamination protocols released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to minimize their chance of spreading white-nose syndrome among bats when working in the field.

According to the newest (2016) version National White-Nose Syndrome Decontamination Protocol, individuals in contact with bats or going into the hibernacula of bats are recommended to decontaminate their gear—an effective way to prevent the spread of the spores of the fungus. These procedures are strictly followed by bat survey participants like Mike and many other scientists from the state government agencies.

In addition to the state level of protection, the Game Commission is also working closely with the caving community throughout Pennsylvania to raise their awareness of which caves people should go into and which they should avoid, as well as implementing the decontamination guidelines to the caving community.

“Most [caving] people don’t have any problems following the decontamination protocol,” Mike said. “Some caving groups are actually helping save the bats by helping conduct bat surveys.”

To survey the bat population, every winter, Mike, along with other bat scientists, often enter dozens of sites where bats are hibernating to count their population.

“[The caving groups] often count the bats while caving and report the data to us.” Mike went on. “Sometimes we even invite them to come into the cave and help us out for the survey.”

“Do you consider yourself a good caver?” I asked Mike.

“I’d say so.” He laughed.

WHILE HIBERNATING BATS have been suffering from white-nose syndrome, migratory bats are also not without threat. They are declining because of a different threat: wind farms.

Bat killed by collision with wind turbine. Photo by Tomaž Jančar

According to Mike’s survey, a thirteen-turbine wind farm can estimably kill five hundred or more bats every summer. Mike spent part of his master’s work in biology on surveying the effects of wind turbines on migratory bats.

“Altogether—the wind farms for migratory bats and White-nose [Syndrome] for hibernating bats—are dramatically wiping out the PA bat population,” he added.

Mike’s concerns are important to consider as the United States is now one of the world’s leading producers of wind energy. Although wind energy is often considered “good” energy for us, it might not be as “good” for flying animals. With tens of thousands of wind turbines operating in the U.S. currently, and a great number planned to be constructed, the death of flying animals—not only bats, but also birds—has been increasing every year. According to the American Bird Conservancy, the annual mortality of birds caused by wind turbines was estimated to be as high as 573,000 in 2012. The U.S. Department of Energy predicts if the U.S. meets its goal of 35% of the electrical power from wind energy, up to five million birds would be killed annually by the wind turbines.

“SO, WHAT CAN WE DO to save bats when they visit our homes?” I asked, citing a problem many people may have encountered.

Bats in homes is something we see more as a problem in the summer, answered Mike. This is because bats form maternity colonies during the summer to raise their pups. In some cases, bats will try to set up a colony in people’s attic or other warm, dark places.

When a single bat invades a home, people can wait for the bat to land on something and then catching the bat by putting a Tupperware over it while slicing a piece of cardboard underneath the bat. The caught bat can be released onto a tree.

“If it is a larger number of bats,” Mike continued. “We have what is called NWCO, which is Nuisance Wildlife Control Operators…they know how to deal with bats.”

Additionally, people can practice “eviction and exclusion“, where they can put a one-way door in the opening of the house, so that bats can fly out the house but not back in. Once all the bats fly out, people can seal the openings. However, Mike also warned, this option won’t work if there are flight-less pups in the colony since “the adult bats will try whatever way to get back to the pups.”

Time flew by quickly, and, unwittingly, I had already spent hours talking with Mike. As I got ready to leave, I asked Mike what was the most unforgettable moment in his career as a bat scientist. His answer was the “good old days” when he could descend into a cave during a winter survey and see thousands and thousands of bats. 

“That’s what it used to be like at the larger sites here in Pennsylvania.” He said while walking me out of the Game Commission building. 

Driving on the same zig-zagging Pennsylvanian country road, I couldn’t help but ponder how after Mike showed me all the figures about bats that he had prepared for this interview, he said, “ Yup… everything is going down…”

1 Data from Wildlife Outreach Center, Penn State Extension.

Realated—if you enjoy this article, you may also like these 

Bat Conservation International:

Bird-smart Wind Energy: Protecting Birds from Poorly-Sited Wind Turbines:

PennState Extension-Wildlife Nuisance and Damage-Bats:

Using a Novel Partitivirus in Pseudogymnoascus destructans to Understand the Epidemiology of White-Nose Syndrome:

National White-Nose Syndrome Decontamination Protocol – Version 04.12.2016:

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I HAVE TO ADMIT, before I start writing about bats, the last time I spent hours at night paying attention to a “bat” was me watching Batman vs. Superman while swallowing coke and popcorn.

I used to think I know bats well—I know they are mammals, I know they can fly, I know (at least to me) they look like mice, with wings, and I know they are mostly active at night. However, as I start to learn more about bats, I come to the conclusion that I don’t know them well.

Maybe, I realize, I am not the only one who doesn’t know much about bats. Therefore, in this post, I want to share with you something interesting about bats—something I used not to know about bats; something that, over the years, I have wondered about bats but never had time to find out. And, of course, I want to tell you more about my “Bat-Man Project”.

Bats are the only mammals that can fly.

Hereby “fly”, I mean the true, naturally sustained flight—not squirrels “flying” from one tree to another, not cats “flying” from balcony to the backyard, not the Wright brothers “flying” in their revolutionary flying machine four miles south of Kitty Hawk in North Carolina. You might think bats have the same wings as birds’. In some sense, yes—they both have flattened forelimbs that form wings. However, unlike birds whose entire forelimbs are flattened to become wings, bats have evolved with only flattened hands. No wonder the scientists who know ancient Greek give bats such a catchy scientific name—“chiroptera,” meaning hand-wing. The fingers of bats are extremely long and spread-out and are covered with a thin membrane, forming a light, elastic, and strong webbed wings. Having the ability to fly means bats can enjoy the slice of pie in the food web that most mammals can’t share—the flying insects. So, next time you say, “early bird gets the food,” also keep in mind “flying bat” gets the food too!

Bats are the second largest order of mammals in the world.

Underrepresented by humans, bats are not a minority species. After rodents, bats are the largest order of mammals. Scientists have identified more than 1,300 species of bats1, which represents roughly twenty percent of all mammals species in the world. Of all the bat species, they can be roughly categorized into two types. One is the large fruit-eating megabats also known as the flying fox (another illustration of scientists’ rich imagination when naming species). The other type of bat is the much smaller microbat. Microbats feed on insects and have the echolocating ability—the ability to use sound to detect the environment, which their siblings, flying fox bats, lack.

Bats have been misunderstood by people.

Are bats really as wicked as people rumor? Or do bats really eat people? The truth is, they do not! No other mammals are as misjudged by humans as bats. Seventy percent of the bats in the world are exclusively insect-eaters, while the rest of them are mostly fruit-eaters. Only a few species of bats—such as fish-eating bats, which feed on fish, or vampire bats, which feed on blood—eat animals other than insects, and these bats are primarily distributed in South America. So, what is the chance of you being attacked by a bat? Probably the same as being attacked by your neighbor’s puppy—which is pretty low. And what is the chance of your blood being sucked by a bat? As rare as you winning the one-million-dollar Powerball, especially if you live in North America.

Bats are extremely beneficial for us.

All the bats that inhabit the United States are microbats that ONLY live on insects. With that said, bats make good neighbors! They, as the primary predator for night-flying insects, majestically forage for insects that humans find problematic. Such as, June bugs that tear apart tree leaves, cucumber beetles that harm our cucumbers and muskmelons crops, stinkbugs that pierce the skin of fruits, mosquitos that suck out your and your animals’ blood, and countless other harmful pests to our agriculture and health. The important role bats play in insect control is exactly what makes bats important for our agriculture and the ecosystem.

Bats are seriously threatened.

Despite being beneficial to our ecosystem, bats are at risk from humans. The population of bats is declining globally because of severe disruption to bat habitats—26 bat species have been listed “Critically Endangered” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), meaning they face the imminent threat of extinction in wild1. Along with these “Critically Endangered” bat species are fifty-one others that are “Endangered”, and with 954 bat species that are considered “Vulnerable”1. That’s (26 + 51 + 954)/1240 = 83%! More than eighty percent of the entire bat species are being threatened!

Here in North America, the bat population has dropped drastically because of white-nose syndrome (WNS), a bat disease caused by a European-origin fungus named Pseudogymnoascus destructans. In Latin, “Destructans” means “destroying”, and as its name indicates, this fungus has been destroying the bat population harshly. Since the first discovery of WNS in Upstate New York in February 2006, WNS has spread across the eastern part of the U.S. and Canada, wiping out over 5.7 million of the bat population in North America1. The cure for WNS is still a mystery.

And Finally…About my “Bat-Man Project”. 

The public’s lack of information about bats propelled me to start this Bat-Man project. By studying, researching, and writing about bats, I want to educate people on the social, cultural, and historical aspects about bats, as well as the interesting science behind bats. Most importantly, I want all of us to help save bats. I hope many of you, after reading my blogs, can assuredly tell your friends that bats won’t attack them, can calmly handle a bat when she visits your home, can tell people the fun fact that only Chinese culture is believed to associate bats with good luck among all cultures in the world. And can, if you want, spend a weekend afternoon teaching your children how to build a bat house and hang one in your backyard.

After all, we are the people who must save the bat!

Here’s to the bats!

Data from Bat Conservation International 

Explore More:

Bat Conservation International 

Penn State Extension – Wildlife Outreach Center – Bats

Penn State Extension – Wildlife Outreach Center – A Homeowner’s Guide to Northeastern Bats and Bat Problems.

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Driving his decrepit red Ford pick-up truck on a narrow country road that winds through farms, hills, and creeks, Dr. Ryan Kerney finally takes Liz and I to Michaux State Forest, on a chilly spring day. Here, thirteen miles west of Gettysburg, PA, is where we are authorized to collect spotted salamander embryos under a Pennsylvania state permit.

Michaux State Forest, of course, is not the only place to find spotted salamanders embryos. If you live in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Québec of Canada, or Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin of America (It’s a long list…isn’t it?), chances are you could easily encounter spotted salamander embryos in a local pond after the first warm rain in the spring.

Egg mass of spotted salamander: they can easily be found in ponds during the spring across the East Coast of the United States.

Surrounded by their egg capsules, these tiny dark spotted salamander embryos look like marble beads garnished with green glitters. Outside the egg capsules is a thick layer of jelly coat, forming a big egg mass amid the vegetation in water. “Deep inside these egg masses, there are cells that are interacting between the world of algae and the world of salamander,” says my mentor Dr. Kerney, Associate Professor of Biology at Gettysburg College, who is also known as the “salamander guy” for his dedication of salamander studies.

It takes two to tango

The association between spotted salamander embryos and green algae is first discovered by naturalist-scientist Henry Orr in 1888. Orr’s discovery offers a great demonstration of a mutualistic symbiosis—the harmonious living together of two species: algae provides oxygen to salamander host by photosynthesis, while the salamander offers nitrogen-rich waste products to the algae as nutrients. According to our collaborator Dr. John A. Burns, postdoctoral researcher in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at American Museum of Natural History, the symbiosis between algae and spotted salamander is more than beneficial but rather necessary.

“Salamander embryos tend to be smaller and have a lower chance of survival if the algae stops supplying oxygen by photosynthesis or if the algae is taken away from the salamander,” says Burns.

Spotted salamander embryo observed under fluorescent microscope: right dots shown are the light emitted by algae under fluorescent light.

Questions, however, arise around how these beneficial algae get through the thick jelly surrounding the embryos, and how these algae can break through the egg capsule that further protects the salamander embryos from the environment? To answer these questions, Kerney decides to observe these salamander embryos under a microscope to find some hints. Fortunately, the photosynthetic property of algae offers some convenience to be easily observed—because algae are photosynthetic, if you shine one wavelength of light on them, they will emit another wavelength of light back, making them easily to be observed under a fluorescent microscope (microscope that can emit certain wavelength of fluorescent light to the object).

The High-Five Moment

The high-five moment comes when Kerney observed the salamander embryos under fluorescent microscope.

“ I looked at a later stage of embryo with a fluorescent microscope to see if there is any sign of algae persisting near the time of hatching,” Kerney says, “and it was totally surprising to see there is algal cells embedded inside the embryo itself.”

Transmission electron microscope of a spotted salamander cell containing endosymbiotic algal cells.

To further investigate what is happening between the salamander embryo and algae, Kerney takes a step further by observing the specimen under a transmission electron microscope, a microscope that have high enough resolution and can magnify objects for 10,000,000 times. Seeing the image from the electron microscope, he realizes he have just discovered something totally unexpected and astonishing: the algal cells not only live around salamanders, but also they go inside the individual cells of the salamander embryo. Indeed, this cell living within a cell relationship, which scientists refer to as “endosymbiosis” that occurs between algae and spotted salamander embryo—like a Russian matryoshka doll—is the first known example of a symbiont entering into the host cells of a vertebrate.

A Learning Process

After the exciting moment of revealing the first known example of vertebrate endosymbiosis between algae and spotted salamander, more questions regarding this unique intimate relationships are apparent.

“The question that we are currently tackling is what kind of molecular change is happening when these salamander and green algal cells are together,” says Dr. Eunsoo Kim, who is the assistant curator of microbial diversity and systematics in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology in American Natural History, and our collaborator.

To unveil the molecular changes that may lead to this unique phenomenon, Kerney, Liz and I decide to compared messenger RNA (the middle-step information code between DNA and protein) from four different groups of cells: salamander cells with algae endosymbiont, salamander cells without algae edosymbiont, algal cells live within salamander host, and algal cells outside the salamander hosts. Our goal is to discover the differences of gene expression for both algal and salamander cells when they have come together.

Explanations to this unique endosymbiosis relationship start to emerge with more and more investigations being done. We have recently discovered that both the algae and the salamander have changed their gene expressions (segments of DNA that encodes useful genetic information) in order to adapt to each other. Genes that are responsible for importing inorganic nutrients for algal cells, for instances, have been turned off when algal cells are inside the salamander cells, since inside the salamander cells, there are enough organic nutrients for algae. (Will you still do grocery shopping if there is already enough food for you?)

Uncovering the bigger secrets

Like how spotted salamanders are closely associated with microbes, humans also have trillions of microbes (called microbiome) living on and inside our bodies. Illustration from American Natural History Museum.

“We are learning that the algal cells and salamander cells are dramatically changing each other to adopt each other,” says Kim. “This change may be relevant for other symbiotic systems including human and parasitic bacteria relationships.”

We, as humans, also have trillions of microorganisms living in or on or bodies. Therefore, based on our investigations on spotted salamanders and their algal symbionts, we are also hoping to shed light on the secrets behind how human microbes interact with their human host—us—and alter our physiology.

One afternoon in the forest, dressing in the waders and trekking through the cold, muddy ponds, we have collected enough embryos for the next round of experiment. With exhaustion, I, once again, find myself on Kerney’s decrepit red Ford pick-up truck zig-zagging along the narrow country road that leads us back to town.

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