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. Danielle Blumstein is an author on ‘ When the tap runs dry: the physiological effects of acute experimental dehydration in Peromyscus eremicus’, published in JEB. Danielle is a PhD candidate in the lab of Matthew MacManes at the University of New Hampshire, USA, investigating evolution and adaptive diversity by blending physiology, genomics and evolutionary biology.

Danielle Blumstein

Describe your scientific journey and your current research focus

I was introduced to research at Michigan State University as an undergraduate in the Residential Initiative on the Study of the Environment (RISE), an interdisciplinary living-learning program focused on sustainability and environmental stewardship. As members of this program, we were encouraged to take part in hands-on projects and co-curricular initiatives to explore our interests within a supportive community of students, faculty and staff with shared values. This program taught me the skills and tools I needed to branch out into the greater MSU research community. Shortly after this I began, working in Dr Kim Scribner's lab collecting and analysing genetic and ecological data for lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens), burbot (Lota lota) and various aquatic invasive species. I soon learned of the complexity of research, animals and management, and was captivated by it. From there, I completed my master's in the Wisconsin Cooperative Fishery Research Unit with Dr Wes Larson, where I focused on the complex genome evolution of salmonids. During this period, I became more interested in the interaction between adaptive diversity and connecting phenotypes to genome. This led me to the lab I am currently in during my PhD, working with Dr Matthew MacManes at the University of New Hampshire, and forms the basis of our recent paper.

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

Our article describes what happens when a desert-adapted mouse in a simulated desert habitat is without access to water. It provides us a unique opportunity to explain the survival strategies employed by organisms in some of the harshest habitats on Earth. Desert mammals have been studied quite extensively for the last 100 years and given the current climate change reports, understanding environmental tolerance and the capacity for adaptation in one species can provide insight into the potential for similar species to respond to increasingly extreme climatic patterns that are likely to affect many habitats. We explored the physiological mechanisms that enable cactus mice to survive in desert habitats using long-term physiological data, observing that cactus mice have unique and important responses when water deprived. Without water they have significantly lower metabolisms, leading to reduced water loss compared to mice with access to water. They also lose a significant amount of weight, likely due to reduce food intake aimed at limiting fluid loss by reducing waste and the solute load, while facilitating water reabsorption.

What are the potential implications of this finding for your field of research?

Until quite recently, physiology studies were based on single time point measurements; this method is unable to capture the nuances occurring during naturally cycling photoperiods, temperatures and humidities. Our findings show that this extra layer of experimental manipulation, using real-time and long-term data collection under more natural cyclical conditions, is critical when exploring responses to environmental change.

Danielle holding a cactus mouse in the research colony. Photo credit: Adam Stuckert.

Danielle holding a cactus mouse in the research colony. Photo credit: Adam Stuckert.

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

This project was challenging because it forced us to re-think how we analyze metabolic data. It has been hard to find other studies that replicate more natural conditions by cycling room temperature and relative humidity with the light/dark cycle, resulting in findings that were confusing and difficult to interpret.

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?

Early-career research is an exciting and difficult time. I think it's key to remember that we are holistically human, and changes need to address the whole person. Equity and work–life balance are key in academia to retain and advance early-career researchers, but while interventions like implicit bias training and wellness workshops are laudable, they are not enough. I have witnessed too many peers leave or fall out of my field due to deep, pervasive and worsening structural and societal problems that we know are particularly intense for researchers from historically excluded genders and races. Academia is still a system that expects grad workers to survive on poverty wages and to work ourselves to exhaustion. The exploited, starving model of training has got to go. ECRs are highly educated, skilled workers whose labour is the foundation of academic research and a vital part of undergraduate teaching. Like all working adults, we have basic material needs: a liveable wage, affordable housing and benefits including health care and retirement plans. We also have reasonable workplace needs: to be treated with dignity, respect and collegiality. These are the needs that must be filled to improve our lives and keep us in the pipeline. And I hope the system can change because I love my work. It is a joy and a privilege to spend my days tackling some of the most important issues of our time and engaging in ideas that fascinate me. I plan to stay in my field for as long as it is financially and emotionally sustainable to do so.

What's next for you?

I'm planning to defend my dissertation in the spring of 2024 and I'm actively looking for postdoctoral positions addressing questions at the interface between integrative physiology, functional genomics and evolutionary biology.

What do you like to do in your spare time, when you are not in the lab?

Work–life balance is incredibly important to me, and I don't think I'd be accomplishing the things I am without it. My hobbies change seasonally and that keeps things interesting and exciting! During the spring and summer, I train and compete in triathlons, in fall I outdoor rock climb and mountain bike and in winter, I ski. These things take me away from my computer and clear my mind.

Danielle Blumstein's contact details: Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Biomedical Sciences, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH 03824, USA.


D. M.
M. D.
When the tap runs dry: the physiological effects of acute experimental dehydration in Peromyscus eremicus
J. Exp. Biol