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. Mal Graham is an author on ‘ Dynamic gap crossing in Dendrelaphis, the sister taxon of flying snakes’, published in JEB. Mal conducted the research described in this article while a PhD student in Jake Socha's lab at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, USA. They are now a Strategy Director at Wild Animal Initiative, MN, USA, where they work on promoting interest in the field of wild animal welfare science. In their own research, they are interested in the well-being of wild animals and how biomechanical research tools can be utilized to assess welfare in the field (especially suffering due to injury and illness).
Describe your scientific journey and your current research focus
I started my scientific career with an undergraduate degree in physics. At the end of the program, I knew I wanted to work with animals and not in a lab. I considered pursuing veterinary training, but worried I would miss the math. Reading the book ‘Why elephants have big ears’ (by Chris Lavers) got me interested in comparative biomechanics and set me on the path to my PhD.
My second scientific shift occurred during my PhD, just before the fieldwork that grounds this paper, when I had a bit of an ethical crises. Five snakes in my care died unintentionally, and I felt terrible about it. I attempted to do some research regarding the wellbeing of these animals in the wild, only to realize that nobody knew anything at all about typical quality of life for these animals. That set me on the path to my current job at Wild Animal Initiative and my interest in studying wild animal welfare.
How would you explain the main finding of your paper to a member of the public?
We found that a close relative of the flying snakes can jump across gaps, using quite similar kinematic patterns to flying snakes, but we did not find the special ‘J loop jump’ that flying snakes use (and which seems to give flying snakes much better jumping performance).
What are the potential implications of this finding for your field of research?
The finding is important because very few species of snakes are known to be able to jump, and the behavior likely helps them navigate the rainforest canopies in which they live. It also suggests that the ability to jump may have evolved before gliding in the flying snake family, and that the special ‘J loop’ behavior may only be present in the flying snakes, specifically.
Which part of this research project was the most rewarding/challenging?
Catching the snakes! I spent almost 6 months in Australia and only was able to collect data from 20 individuals. In part, this was because it took a while to figure out the right strategy, and in part, it's because spotting and catching snakes is just tough. The extreme heat waves and intense flooding didn't help, either (2018–2019 was Australia's hottest summer on record at the time).
Are there any important historical papers from your field that have been published in JEB?
The obvious one for anyone working on snake locomotion is J. Gray's 1946 paper ‘The mechanism of locomotion in snakes’ (doi:10.1242/jeb.23.2.101). Gray classified four modes of snake locomotion that were paradigmatic until a few years ago and paved the way for all future studies on snake movement.
Are there any modern-day JEB papers that you think will be the classic papers of 2123?
For my research area specifically, my work wouldn't have been possible without Bruce Jayne and Michael Riley's 2007 paper on gap-crossing in the brown tree snake (‘Scaling of the axial morphology and gap-bridging ability of the brown tree snake, Boiga irregularis’, doi:10.1242/jeb.002493), and my advisor's paper on the kinematics of takeoff in flying snakes (Socha, 2006; ‘Becoming airborne without legs: the kinematics of take-off in a flying snake, Chrysopelea paradisi’, doi:10.1242/jeb.02381). Jayne and Riley's work really got the ball rolling in terms of asking questions about how snakes cross gaps, and understanding how flying snakes take off is critical for comparing that behavior with behaviors in other contexts. More broadly, I really love Greg Byrne and colleagues' 2011 paper on Malayan colugos (‘Gliding saves time but not energy in Malayan colugos’, doi:10.1242/jeb.052993) for getting me interested in why animals do what they do when navigating the arboreal habitat. I hope more people get interested in how non-primates move around arboreal environments and these papers become classics!
What do you think experimental biology will look like 50 years from now?
I'm really interested in how new technologies, especially those enabled by machine learning, will change the field. Already, a lot of the time-consuming clicking of points I did for my PhD is becoming more obsolete. Automated behavior recognition in the field is becoming possible. I'd love to see that enable us to explore totally new questions we can't even think about now because the data collection requirements seem so unfeasible.
If you had unlimited funding, what question in your research field would you most like to address?
I really want to know what the lives of animals are actually like in the wild, and how we can make them better. This is a question I'm transitioning into researching in my new job, and I'm still trying to figure out the best way to bring in the skills I learned during my PhD. I think there's a lot of potential for using biomechanical tools to understand animal health, rates of injury, etc., so I'd love to use an unlimited grant to work in that area.
What changes do you think could improve the lives of early-career researchers, and what would make you want to continue in a research career?
I'm sort of skeptical that a lot of academia is arranged the right way – many practices seem based on historical norms rather than a thoughtful analysis of what the best way to train researchers is. Being more open to change would be great for all researchers, but especially early-career researchers who might find many of the norms challenging and inexplicable.
Personally, I'd want to do more research if it could be made less stressful! It seems like, to be a good scientist, you have to be great at every aspect of the scientific process, including things that universities don't provide much or enough training in such as data integrity and statistics. We push ourselves to get everything right, and I don't hear many people talking about how impossible that is – I guess because it's hard to be the first one to say ‘this is unreasonable, no one should have to be an expert in all these different things’.
I'd love to see more proposals to break up parts of the scientific process to allow people to specialize in certain aspects and do team-based science. I think radically rethinking how we do science is necessary to both improve the quality and make the discipline more accessible, so there isn't so much pressure to be perfect.
What's next for you?
I'm the Strategy Director at Wild Animal Initiative, an organization focused on promoting the study of wild animal welfare. I help the organization decide where we should put our resources to do the most good for our mission. I really have enjoyed long-term strategic thinking, and helping out on other people's research projects (I'm getting to assist on a study of house sparrow welfare right now, for example). I'll definitely keep doing this for a few years while I contemplate whether I have appetite for more work in academia.
Mal Graham’s contact details: Wild Animal Initiative, Minneapolis, MN 55437, USA.