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. Kelton Verble and Ellen Keaveny are authors on ‘A rapid return to normal: temporal gene expression patterns following cold exposure in the bumble bee Bombus impatiens’, published in JEB. Kelton is a PhD candidate in the lab of Dr Jeffrey Lozier at The University of Alabama, USA, investigating the transcriptomics and epigenomics underlying thermal tolerance in bumble bees. Ellen is a PhD candidate in the lab of Michael Dillon at the University of Wyoming, USA, investigating how temperature affects bumble bees at cellular, organismal, population and community levels.

Kelton Verble and Ellen Keaveny

How did you become interested in biology?

Ellen: My interest in biology was sparked by a physiology course during my freshman year of college. It was one of the first classes where I felt amazed by course material. Following that class, many of the environmental science and biology labs within the major had components that were taught outside in the mountains surrounding the college, and I was hooked. Being immersed in a place so different from the city where I grew up, and learning about the flora, fauna and ecological processes of the environment from fantastic professors and peers was a privilege and I am super fortunate for that experience which led to my interests today.

Kelton: Like a lot of children, when I had a question, I was never happy with ‘Just because’ or ‘I don't know’. This was especially true regarding my curiosities about the natural world and wildlife. Growing up in Detroit, Michigan, it wasn't always easy getting hands-on nature experience, but I made the local zoo my second home and watched a nauseating amount of Animal Planet trying to absorb all the information I could. It wasn't until my second year as an undergrad at Purdue University that I discovered I can turn my passion and knowledge about wildlife and biology into a career. Through coursework, I deepened my understanding of various biological and ecological processes, and research opportunities gave me a better understanding as to how the material could be applied in the real world. This fueled my love for biology; however, what really kept me motivated to stay involved in the biological sciences were my faculty and graduate student mentors. They demonstrated what good, ethical science looked like, and I hope to have a similar impact on future scientists.

Describe your scientific journey and your current research focus

Ellen: After finishing my undergraduate at Fort Lewis College, USA, I processed human grafts for transplant before coordinating those grafts to patient recipients. After about 6 years, I shifted focus back to ecology and joined Michael Dillon's lab at the University of Wyoming, USA. My research focuses on how temperature, from a cold snap in spring to seasonal shifts, influences bumble bee behavior and phenology (emergence timing and peak abundance). This research includes investigating the more minute biochemical alterations to larger physiological traits which ultimately drive large-scale responses of cold tolerance, behavior and phenology.

Kelton: I earned my undergraduate degree from Purdue University, USA, where I discovered I had an interest in wildlife genetics. After graduation, I worked for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources for one fall season helping to screen hunter-harvested deer for chronic wasting disease. I really enjoyed that position, but ultimately wanted to continue my education and aim for a master's degree. Fortunately, there was a graduate student opening at Virginia Tech, USA, investigating the population genetics of banded mongooses in northern Botswana. After earning my master's degree, I moved to Montana to work on a wolf population genomics project with the US Forest Service. After 2 years, I joined Jeffrey Lozier's lab at the University of Alabama, USA, where I now study the transcriptomics and epigenomics of thermal tolerance in bumble bees.

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

When most insects get cold, they can slip into a state of inactivity that we call chill-coma. This can be reversed, and insects can become active again when temperatures get warm enough. This a remarkable process that amazes us as scientists, but also leaves us asking the questions: what biological changes happen inside the bodies of insects allowing them to recover from chill-coma, and how fast do these changes happen? Researchers are exploring these questions by studying a variety of insect species that are able to recover from cold conditions, but we wanted to investigate them using bumble bees. Unlike a lot of insects, bumble bees are large, covered in hair, and can shiver to create body heat, making them the perfect study organisms to help answer questions about cold recovery. For our research, we measured how bumble bees turned genes on and off at different time points during their rewarming period following chill-coma. We found that bumble bees recovering from cold temperatures appear to react fast on a molecular level (within 30 min) by turning on genes that tell their body to use sugars like glucose to fuel the muscles needed for shivering.

A Bombus impatiens forages on a yellow wildflower (left) and a Bombus melanopygus forages in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, at 3200 m (right).

A Bombus impatiens forages on a yellow wildflower (left) and a Bombus melanopygus forages in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, at 3200 m (right).

What do you enjoy most about research, and why?

Ellen: The social side of research can be particularly enjoyable. Collaborating with colleagues across departments or across institutions can lead to exciting projects that seem intimidating or outside of your area of expertise if doing alone but absolutely approachable when teamed up with great people. Those collaborations can often result in new friendships too, which is one of the best parts. Plus, doing fieldwork in beautiful places with friends, peers and technicians can be way more memorable when it's shared and overall the experience is enhanced by having great people there.

What is the most important piece of equipment for your research, what does it do and what question did it help you address?

Kelton: Pipettes. I don't know how any of the molecular work would be done without pipettes. Pipettes are needed throughout the RNA extraction process and library preparation. When working with volumes of sample and reagents in the microliters, pipettes are an essential part of the job. If there is a human alive that can accurately take-up and dispense microliters of sample and/or reagents using an eyedropper, dixie cup, or any other tool, I'd like to shake their hand. Well calibrated pipettes are the answer to this question. A little caffeine for early mornings/late nights in the lab comes in a close second place.

What is your favourite animal, and why?

Ellen: I'll stick with bumble bees. It's a lame answer because they're my study species, but I've spent ample time with them in the lab and in the wild to appreciate them so much and find them charming. Their behavior within the colony making beautiful structures, their ability to contract flight muscles and shunt that heat to the abdomen to incubate brood, their fluffy, vibrantly colored pile, their overall docile demeanor even though they're not afraid to get feisty should they need, and that peaceful buzz they produce as they fly by, what's not to love?

Kelton: If I was asked this question 4 years ago, I would've likely said a great ape like western lowland gorillas. I've always had a soft spot for primates and often find myself getting lost in the primatology literature. There's just so much we can learn about ourselves reading about other non-human primates. However, bumble bees have really grown on me since coming to Alabama. Similar to a lot of primate species, bumble bees are social and highly intelligent. There is also something remarkably relaxing about waiting for a bumble bee to appear in a field of wildflowers on an early spring morning. Now that's my kind of field work. Plus, my advisor Jeffery Lozier told me when I first started here that bumble bees are like mammals of the insect world: covered in hair and can thermoregulate. I'm sold.

Kelton Verble’s contact details: Department of Biological Sciences, The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL 35487, USA.

Ellen Keaveny's contact details: Department of Zoology & Physiology and Program in Ecology and Evolution, University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY 82071, USA.


K. M.
E. C.
S. R.
M. J.
M. E.
J. D.
A rapid return to normal: temporal gene expression patterns following cold exposure in the bumble bee Bombus impatiens
J. Exp. Biol.