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. Elizabeth (Beth) Rogers is an author on ‘ Water restriction increases oxidation of endogenous amino acids in house sparrows (Passer domesticus)’, published in JEB. Beth is a PhD candidate in the lab of Alex Gerson at University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA, investigating the physiological and metabolic adaptations that allow animals to contend with ecological challenges such as long-distance migration, disease, environmental change and the confluence of all three.

Beth Rogers

How did you become interested in biology?

I've loved nature since I was a child and my biology classes in grade school only deepened this connection and interest. I was lucky enough to pursue a degree in biology in college and had the opportunity to join a research lab studying white-nose syndrome in threatened North American bat species. This experience opened my eyes to the world of field biology and eco-physiological research and all the possible career paths I could pursue that combined my interests in wildlife, organismal biology and environmental science.

Describe your scientific journey and your current research focus

I worked as an undergraduate research assistant at Bucknell University, USA, for 3 years, working on projects investigating physiological and immunological responses to white-nose syndrome. Following graduation, I completed a Master's degree in biology at Texas Tech University, USA, where I studied seasonal flexibility in lipid metabolism in Brazilian free-tailed bats and immune function trade-offs during spring migration in silver-haired bats. I'm currently pursuing a doctorate in Organismal and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, studying metabolism and immune function in migratory songbirds.

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

Although migratory birds primarily fuel long-distance flights with fat, which is lightweight and energy dense, prior research has found that exercising birds burn more protein than would be expected based on baseline levels of tissue damage and repair. This is surprising because fasting animals typically spare protein as long as possible, as it must be sourced from functional tissues. Birds may do this because breaking down protein produces more water compared with fat or carbohydrates. Previous research by my advisor Alex Gerson has shown that birds elevate rates of protein utilization when they are water stressed, supporting the hypothesis that birds rely on protein metabolism to offset water losses when flying or when drinking water is unavailable. However, previous studies have only shown that water-stressed birds lose fat-free mass at a greater rate than hydrated birds, indicating elevated protein breakdown. The aim of this study was to determine whether water-stressed birds burn the resulting amino acids or use them for some other purpose. To do this, we fed birds a 13C-labeled amino acid that could only be obtained from the diet. After allowing enough time for birds to incorporate the labeled amino acid into their tissues, we water restricted birds and measured the amount of label in their exhaled CO2 as a proxy for relative amino acid metabolism compared with hydrated birds. We found that in addition to losing more fat-free mass, water-stressed birds increased rates of amino acid utilization, supporting our hypothesis that birds burn more protein in response to dehydration. Interestingly, we also found that amino acid utilization decreased over the course of the 18 h water restriction period, suggesting that birds may save protein as dehydration severity increases by using other strategies.

The respirometry system used in this study, including a Picarro isotopic carbon analyzer used to measure δ13C in exhaled CO2. The respirometry chambers were housed in an environmental chamber (not shown). Inlay: a female house sparrow (Passer domesticus) captured for this study in Hadley, MA, USA.

The respirometry system used in this study, including a Picarro isotopic carbon analyzer used to measure δ13C in exhaled CO2. The respirometry chambers were housed in an environmental chamber (not shown). Inlay: a female house sparrow (Passer domesticus) captured for this study in Hadley, MA, USA.

What do you enjoy most about research, and why?

The most enjoyable part of doing research for me is building a scientific community through collaboration. I find it really rewarding to work on projects with people from different backgrounds and disciplines because I always learn something new or gain new perspective. Working in a team can present challenges, but I find it's almost always more satisfying to work towards a shared goal in collaboration with others. I also love building a scientific community by mentoring students in the lab and field and creating spaces of mutual support and learning.

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

The most important lesson I've learned in my career so far is to prioritize the aspects of my work that fuel my joy and curiosity about the natural world. While I'm intrinsically motivated to understand how migratory animals live such energetically demanding lifestyles, I've found that I can't sustain my academic pursuits in a vacuum. Where I find real inspiration is by connecting with the animals that I study, both by working in the field and spending time in nature recreationally, and by connecting with people that share similar research interests.

What's next for you?

I'll be looking for a postdoc or permanent position in 2025. I'm eager to do work that bridges the gap between basic biological research and wildlife conservation.

Elizabeth Rogers's contact details: University of Massachusetts Amherst, Amherst, MA 01003, USA.

E-mail: bethrogs@gmail.com

Rogers
,
E. J.
and
Gerson
,
A. R.
(2024).
Water restriction increases oxidation of endogenous amino acids in house sparrows (Passer domesticus)
.
J. Exp. Biol.
227
,
jeb246483
.