ECR Spotlight is a series of interviews with early-career authors from a selection of papers published in Journal of Experimental Biology and aims to promote not only the diversity of early-career researchers (ECRs) working in experimental biology but also the huge variety of animals and physiological systems that are essential for the ‘comparative’ approach. Cory Elowe is an author on ‘ Sarcolipin relates to fattening, but not sarco/endoplasmic reticulum Ca2+-ATPase uncoupling, in captive migratory gray catbirds’, published in JEB. Cory conducted the research described in this article while a PhD student in Alexander Gerson's lab at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, USA. He is now a postdoc in the lab of Maria Stager at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, investigating the integrative physiology of environmental challenges.

Cory Elowe

How did you become interested in biology?

As a kid growing up in central Maine I spent a lot of my time outdoors, exploring the woods around our house and trying (in vain) to get the winter birds to eat out of my hands. My dad was a state wildlife biologist, specializing in black bears, so it seemed completely normal to have close encounters with wild animals regularly. I suppose you could say that an interest in biology was a part of my childhood. But most of my fascination at the time was based on the things people already knew; it took me a long time to realize that there were so many more questions out there, and that a career as a researcher would let me pursue those questions.

Describe your scientific journey and your current research focus

During my time as an undergraduate at Bowdoin College, USA, I leaned heavily toward ecology and conservation, spending time on internships with shorebird conservation at Maine Audubon and research doing aquatic vegetation recovery and mapping with Dr John Lichter. This led to years of working for organizations such as the Bureau of Land Management, The Nature Conservancy, and Bird Research Northwest. But one thing that was really missing was the pursuit of my own questions. Over those years, I was thinking a lot about resilience to environmental change, and this led me to seek out my Master's at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, USA, with Dr Lars Tomanek, studying the proteome of intertidal mussels in their fluctuating environment. While developing a tidal simulator experiment and conducting 2D gel electrophoresis with protein identification using mass spectrometry was a big change from my undergraduate and professional experience, I was excited by the prospect of learning new tools to uncover the mechanisms behind an organism's physiological resilience to external stressors. This led to my PhD research at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst with Dr Alex Gerson, studying the extraordinary physiological flexibility of migratory songbirds, which spanned work ranging from flying birds in a wind tunnel to investigating migratory preparation at the transcriptomic level. That work naturally led to my postdoc position working with Dr Maria Stager to explore the mechanisms of flexibility in songbirds in response to the cold. Physiological flexibility in response to environmental change is the primary focus of my research, and birds offer such a rich system for this field of study, whether it's the changes they undergo to accomplish their long-distance migrations or to survive the winter and the sensitivity of these changes to things like extreme temperatures, drought or toxins.

How would you explain the main findings/message of your paper to a member of the public?

Human health researchers are trying to figure out whether we can combat obesity by encouraging our bodies to burn extra calories. One interesting option is through a protein called sarcolipin that leads muscle to burn extra energy in mammals. Interestingly, we found that migratory birds express more sarcolipin in their muscles when they're preparing to migrate, despite the energetic demands of flight; however, unlike mammals, this sarcolipin doesn't appear to make their muscle less efficient and it was strongly associated with how fat the birds were. This deviation from what we expect to see from mammalian studies means that sarcolipin may have a different role in birds that we have yet to discover.

What do you enjoy most about research, and why?

I really enjoy the creativity of research. The scientific method is such a powerful way of interacting with the world, and to be able to exercise it daily in my work is always exciting. I love sifting through big data and generating new hypotheses, concocting experiments to test them, learning new methods, and troubleshooting in the lab. I think when we start to see everything we do as an exercise in discovery, it makes it easier to reframe what could be viewed as a failure as more of a learning experience. Even though I love when my hypotheses are supported, a lack of support can be just as fascinating, and research really allows us to enter a path of incremental discovery that isn't available in every career.

What is the hardest challenge you have faced in the course of your research and how did you overcome it?

The hardest challenge for this research (and most of the research I've done) is trying to apply methods from model organisms to non-model organisms. Inevitably, you second guess whether you're seeing something biologically important or simply executing the method poorly. Initially, when measuring SERCA activity and calcium uptake in bird muscle, I was shocked by how ineffective my SERCA inhibitor seemed to be (cyclopiazonic acid) and how slow the rates of calcium uptake were. However, with some persistence and help from experts on the methods (Drs Russell Tupling and Val Fajardo), I was able to apply the inhibitor effectively and measure calcium uptake, which was actually occurring more rapidly than I had anticipated and was simply missed by my original attempts. This was a great lesson in two ways: first, the folks who develop these methods are often incredibly kind and seeking help doesn't have to be a last resort; second, many of these methods from model organisms hold the answers to some fascinating questions, and it can be exciting to branch out and pursue them.

What is your favourite animal, and why?

I love this question, in part because we so often forget to enjoy what we do, and share that joy with others. This is why, even though I absolutely love birds, river otters will always be my favorite animal. They have a playful nature that I could watch all day, and that kind of playfulness is something I will always try to bring into my work, my mentorship and my outreach. Particularly when we're trying to combat imposter syndrome, it's easy to fall into formalities and worry about how we're perceived as professionals in our field. But I think the people I admire the most in science are those who show genuine enthusiasm and share it generously, because nothing inspires people to appreciate science like showing how enjoyable it can be. We're so lucky to be able to pursue these really creative questions in science, and it does our field a disservice to mask that creativity and joy.

Cory Elowe’s contact details: University of Massachusetts Amherst, 611 N Pleasant Street, Amherst, MA 01003, USA.

E-mail: coryelowe@gmail.com

Elowe
,
C. R.
,
Stager
,
M.
and
Gerson
,
A. R.
(
2024
).
Sarcolipin relates to fattening, but not sarco/endoplasmic reticulum Ca2+-ATPase uncoupling, in captive migratory gray catbirds
.
J. Exp. Biol.
227
,
jeb246897
.