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. Lauren Rowsey is an author on ‘ Thermal constraints on exercise and metabolic performance do not explain the use of dormancy as an overwintering strategy in the cunner (Tautogolabrus adspersus)’, published in JEB. Lauren is a PhD candidate in the lab of Ben Speers-Roesch at University of New Brunswick Saint John, Canada, investigating physiological performance of fishes in challenging environments.

Lauren Rowsey

How did you become interested in biology?

I grew up on the beaches of Texas and California and have always been interested in the ocean. My mother fostered that curiosity and sent me to marine biology summer camps that gave me my first experiences snorkeling, dissecting fish and invertebrates, and learning about ocean life. As I moved into high school, these programs built on each other and I was able to explore different environments (e.g. Gulf of Mexico versus Pacific Ocean) and see how different conditions affected the organisms that lived there. During one summer, I took my first overnight boat trip off the coast of San Diego, California, and we spent almost the entire time in the water or in the lab. I think that trip solidified my desire to pursue a degree in biology.

Describe your scientific journey and your current research focus

Following many years as a child in marine biology summer camps, I knew I wanted to study biology in university. During my undergraduate degree at the University of Texas at Austin (UT), I majored in biology with a focus on marine and freshwater science, while also teaching marine science to high schoolers during my summers in California and the British Virgin Islands. Being able to teach at the types of camps I used to attend was a full circle moment, and this ignited my passion for education. My first research experience was at UT in Dr Edward Theriot's lab, where I studied diatom genetics before I moved on to Dr Andrew Esbaugh's lab at UT's Marine Science Institute. There, I carried out research on fish performance following oil exposure, and continued in the lab as a research technician following graduation with my BSc. After a summer teaching, I decided to pursue an MSc degree with Dr Ben Speers-Roesch at the University of New Brunswick Saint John that quickly turned into a PhD. I'm currently wrapping up my thesis research that focuses on whether performance limitations (e.g. exercise, digestion) drive the use of winter dormancy in fish.

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

Many fishes stay active in the winter, though moving slower and eating less than in the warm and food-abundant summer. Other fishes undergo winter dormancy (often considered similar to a bear's hibernation), where they greatly reduce activity and cease feeding in the cold. Recent studies have investigated the mechanistic background of winter dormancy, such as what temperatures induce dormancy and how the reduction of activity drives the lower metabolic rate exhibited when dormant, but questions remained about what causes dormancy and why some fishes use it as a strategy to persist in winter while others don't. In our current publication, my colleagues and I sought to answer this by using a model species for winter dormancy and investigating their exercise and metabolic performance across summer to winter temperatures. Despite acute constraints in the cold (i.e. greatly reduced performance), following long-term cold acclimation, fish exhibited physiological compensation to increase performance. Thus, we determined that exercise and metabolic limitations in the cold are not major drivers of winter dormancy in fish.

What do you enjoy most about research, and why?

My favourite part about research is the ability to creatively explore scientific questions. I enjoy the experimental design stage where the goal is to find the best possible way to test your hypothesis, often within the constraints of field conditions or a budget. Science is not always associated with creativity, but conceptualizing a study design, building an experimental setup, and presenting research findings in an interesting and audience-appropriate way are all creative processes that I find fun. I also consider myself lucky that in my current position, we ‘go where the science takes us’. There are always more questions that come out of research, many of which unexpected, and I enjoy being able to dig deeper into them. For example, in our current publication, we found that responsiveness to external stimuli was the only performance metric not improved in the cold following acclimation. This result led us to the question of whether sensory limitations underly winter dormancy; we are hoping to answer this with a multi-species study investigating responsiveness in fishes with different overwintering strategies – currently underway!

What is the most important lesson that you have learned from your career so far?

One of the biggest lessons I've learned is how research benefits from collaboration. Personally, I've found that when science is a collaborative process, different perspectives lead to better and more novel ideas, more funding and equipment is available, and there are more opportunities to learn new techniques. I think researchers are often expected to be an expert on not only their own field, but all fields in the vicinity, which is almost never possible and can lead to imposter syndrome, especially for ECRs. Thus far in my career, I've been extremely lucky to collaborate with colleagues on various projects and have gained experience I wouldn't have without those opportunities. I was fortunate to be an ECR attendee at the recent Company of Biologists workshop ‘Inside out: new frontiers in the comparative physiology of the vertebrate gut’, and one of my biggest takeaways was how breaking out of the isolating silos that can limit science results in new research questions and a network of future collaborators – big thanks to organizers Drs Carol Bucking and Chris Wood! I think the COVID-19 pandemic also taught me this lesson. A large part of science, and one I really enjoy, is sharing your work – with the scientific community and with the public. When I was isolated from my peers, my lab and my network, I found myself not as excited by my research, and since returning to ‘normal’ by attending conferences and workshops, I'm reminded how valuable engaging with the scientific community is.

What do you like to do in your free time?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I like to be on the water when I'm not in the lab. Sailing is one of my biggest passions despite our short Canadian season on the river, and I'm incredibly lucky to have learned how to sail while in the British Virgin Islands teaching marine science. In a perfect world, I would be able to do research from my sailboat – ideally somewhere warm! I also enjoy mountain biking and stand-up paddleboarding, and I volunteer with a non-profit that aims to get youth outdoors and on boards, whether it be a stand-up paddleboard, skateboard or snowboard.

What's next for you?

I've got lots of writing on my plate, but I'm looking forward to finishing my PhD – the end is on the horizon! Hopefully I can enjoy one more sailing season in Saint John, then be off to a postdoc position.

Lauren Rowsey's contact details: University of New Brunswick Saint John, 100 Tucker Park Road, Saint John, NB, Canada E2L4L5.


L. E.
Thermal constraints on exercise and metabolic performance do not explain the use of dormancy as an overwintering strategy in the cunner (Tautogolabrus adspersus)
J. Exp. Biol.