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 during our centenary year but also the huge variety of animals and physiological systems that are essential for the ‘comparative’ approach. Lucas Greville and Mattina Alonge are authors on ‘ Acute restraint stress rapidly impacts reproductive neuroendocrinology and downstream gonad function in big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus)’, published in JEB. Lucas is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the lab of Liam McGuire at the Department of Biology, University of Waterloo, Canada, investigating the eco-physiology of temperate bats with a focus on reproductive physiology and behaviour. Mattina is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the lab of Drs Helen Chmura and Creagh Breuner at the University of Montana, USA, investigating the dynamic interactions between the environment and reproductive physiology, and methods for differentiating pregnancy versus pseudopregnancy in lynx and wolverine within the (US) National Forest landscape.

Lucas Greville and Mattina Alonge

Describe your scientific journey and your current research focus

Lucas: During my undergraduate at McMaster University I loved courses that drew on the connection between animal behaviour and the underlying physiological mechanisms. I started volunteering in the McMaster Bat Lab with Paul Faure and completed my undergraduate, master's and doctoral theses in the lab. My doctoral research examined the potential for estradiol to act as a reproductive pheromone in big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus), which I studied using radioactive tracers, urinary steroid analysis and behavioural assays. I'm currently a NSERC Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Waterloo in Liam McGuire's lab studying the energetics of flight and disease ecology in bats using stable isotope breath analysis and respirometry. We're also conducting field reproductive endocrinology studies by integrating behavioural patterns with hormone levels.

Mattina: After completing a biochemistry degree as an undergraduate at SUNY Stony Brook University, USA, I found myself looking for connections between molecular biology and higher level functions of whole organisms. I fell in love with the process of developing scientific research questions and animal physiology during my master's degree under the guidance of Dr Jason Bystriansky (DePaul University, USA) where I studied ion balance and muscle type-specific enzyme expression in rainbow trout. Following my master's, I worked full-time for 4 years across a range of research positions ranging from translational human medicine and comparative animal nutrition, to species conservation and reproductive endocrinology. Taken together, each position shaped my skills and interests, and led to me pursuing a PhD with Dr George Bentley at University of California (UC), Berkeley, USA, where I studied the neuroendocrine mechanisms regulating reproductive physiology of bats as well as behavioural and physiological trade-offs in finches. I am now a Postdoctoral Researcher (University of Montana) working to integrate reproductive physiology into conservation and mesocarnivore monitoring programmes within the Rocky Mountain Research Station under the joint supervision of Dr Creagh Breuner and Dr Helen Chmura.

How would you explain the main finding of your paper to a member of the public?

One hour of stress was enough to see changes in the brains and testes of male bats that may be associated with rapid negative impacts on fertility and reproduction.

What are the potential implications of this finding for your field of research, and is there anything that you learned during this study that you wish you had known sooner?

Given bats are the second largest group of mammals, we know very little about the reproductive ecology of most species and even less about the physiological regulation of reproduction. This research pushes the field of bat reproduction by describing the mechanisms of stress inhibition on reproduction in bats, starting from neural changes in cell expression, to steroid dynamics, and right down to morphometric changes in the gonads. Our findings represent a piece of the implications of stress on bat physiology, but can inform approaches in conservation and population management where reproductive success is a key facet of population resilience, particularly in the face of changing environments and anthropogenic disturbance.

Examining the wing condition of wild-caught bats in Southern Ontario, Canada. Photo by Karen Vanderwolf.

Examining the wing condition of wild-caught bats in Southern Ontario, Canada. Photo by Karen Vanderwolf.

Which part of this research project was the most rewarding/challenging?

Lucas: I've always believed that science is the most fun and yields the best results when you work with great people. Mattina contacted the lab at McMaster while I was a graduate student to inquire about doing some exploratory neuroendocrine studies on bats and the collaboration between our labs built from there. While there were plenty of emails and a few Skype calls, I had never met Mattina (or her supervisor George) in person. With this project, examining the impacts of stress on bat neuroendocrinology, I was able to get Mitacs Globalink funding to spend a summer visiting the lab at UC Berkeley, learning new methods, and working on this project. And as much as I love the research questions of this project, getting to work with and become friends with Mattina, experiencing a new lab/city, and watching this small research idea come to fruition was the most rewarding part for me. Again, it showed me that good science can be lots of fun when you do it with great people!

Mattina: I will absolutely echo the sentiments surrounding collaboration that Lucas shared. My fascination with bat physiology was a serendipitous path early on in graduate school as it connected me to a wonderful community of scientists, including Lucas and Paul Faure. This project succeeded because of strong collaboration and now serves as a model for me as I engage in new professional relationships. Examining molecular aspects of bat biology can often be challenging simply because of the lack of pre-existing protocols, antibodies or other technical tools that may not have been validated for a particular species of interest. I am grateful to have had the time during my PhD to take some risks and work with Lucas to add some tools to the tool-belt of the field for future neuroendocrine and molecular work.

Why did you choose JEB to publish your paper?

When finalising the data from this project, we wanted to select a journal with respect for comparative endocrinology, and a readership that would appreciate advancement within the bat physiology field. JEB felt like a great fit that would touch the niche of bat physiologists, but also integrative biologists more broadly, and have the potential to then inspire groups beyond our own to continue efforts in characterising physiological responses of bats to stress and implications for fertility and behaviour.

If you had unlimited funding, what question in your research field would you most like to address?

Lucas: One of the coolest elements of reproduction in temperate bat species is that copulation and gestation are decoupled, so females store sperm for months throughout hibernation. We know that females can store sperm from multiple males (big brown bat twins can have different fathers) but we don't know anything about how sperm storage occurs. To be able to examine questions such as cryptic female choice, sperm storage mechanisms, sperm viability, the evolution of sperm storage and so many other aspects of sperm storage would be fascinating.

Mattina: I think that the possibility of combining detailed behavioural and movement data in wild animals paired with individual-level molecular physiology work would be incredibly powerful in shaping our ideas about organismal responses to their environments (and changes to those environments), particularly in the context of migratory species, or highly seasonal breeders that may also hibernate or lay dormant for long periods of time in hard to reach locations. Logistically and financially, these types of studies are so incredibly challenging but the technology often does exist now if you can pay for it!

What is the biggest advice you have for students thinking of completing graduate school?

Lucas: Only go into graduate school if you are truly interested in research, never because you want the degree or title. I've always enjoyed the job, the people, the research, but I know people who haven't. And if you don't enjoy the research, grad school can be a long, long miserable few years.

I'm also a big advocate of having prospective students talk to current and past graduate students from the labs to learn about the supervisor's mentorship style and lab culture. You'll be spending a lot of time working with the supervisor and you want to make sure you'll be in an environment that suits you. Always take a project that's 80% of your ideal research to work with a supervisor who facilitates an environment suitable for your success.

Mattina: Everyone has a unique approach in considering graduate school that I believe is inherently shaped by their personal background, their life experience, their academic trajectory and their goals. There is also a huge diversity in graduate programme structure, community/demographic, expectations, demand, research format and requirements across – and within – institutions. My advice is to take time to try and find the right programme and mentorship relationship that fits your desired lifestyle, your goals, and will provide the support system you need. Getting to chase exciting questions about our natural world is an incredible privilege. Exploring questions that no one has the answers to yet will be difficult at times, but there can be so many rewarding opportunities for collaboration, connection and travel enmeshed in scientific inquiry.

Lucas Greville's contact details: Department of Biology, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON, Canada, N2L 3G1.

Mattina Alonge's contact details: University of Montana, Health Sciences 104, Missoula, MT 59801, USA.


M. M.
L. J. S.
P. A.
G. E.
Acute restraint stress rapidly impacts reproductive neuroendocrinology and downstream gonad function in big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus)
J. Exp. Biol.