Guest blog: Bat researcher Joy O’Keefe invigorated by curiousity of young scientist

Student scientist, Ashley Saulsberry

A few months ago I posted about a high school student, Frances, who had contacted me with an interest in WNS. Not long after, I started corresponding with another student, Ashley Saulsberry, in Tennessee. Ashley was also interested in WNS and what she could do to help. I connected Frances and Ashley, both of whom were working on school projects related to WNS. I also put Ashley in touch with a good friend and colleague of mine, Joy O’Keefe. Joy is an Assistant Professor and bat researcher at Indiana State University. Some of Joy’s work takes her to east Tennessee to work with Indiana bats in and around Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I had hoped that Ashley could get out in the field with Joy and see some of the work bat researchers are doing up close. Joy and Ashley worked together and were able to provide Ashley with an opportunity to spend several weeks in the field, doing an internship on one of Joy’s research projects. Here Joy talks about the excitement of working with this extremely bright and wonderful young scientist.

In January, I received an email from Ashley Saulsberry, a high school senior in middle Tennessee. Because of her concerns over the impacts of white-nose syndrome, Ashley expressed an interest in helping with bat research. I was intrigued by the prospect of taking on an intern who was so young, but already so committed to science that she was willing to volunteer to work with someone she’d never met. When we chatted by phone, I gave Ashley the usual list of admonitions about the dangers and stresses of field work, but she was undaunted and she committed to joining me in the field. Ashley decided she would like to assist on a project on the effects of prescribed fire on Indiana bat roost habitat in the southern Appalachian Mountains.

Ashley's whiteboard drawing of the Indiana bat roost tree

When Ashley arrived at our field house in the Great Smoky Mountains National Parkin early June, my graduate student, three technicians, and I were already immersed in field work. We were netting several nights a week and using radio telemetry to locate Indiana bat maternity roosts every day. Our field house was already cramped and Ashley had to bed down on an air mattress, but she did not complain. Ashley didn’t get much sleep the first few nights anyway, as we would roll in from netting around 3 am only to start tracking the next morning. On her second night with us, Ashley got to see her first Indiana bat – a very pregnant adult female captured on the Nantahala National Forest. As my technician Katherine activated the radio transmitter, she told Ashley to pay attention to the beep because it was a magic beep that would lead us to a roost tree. The next day, with my guidance, Ashley tracked the female, following the magic beep to a large dead pine along the lakeshore. This maternity tree really became Ashley’s tree, as she visited it with each of my technicians and was present for most of the emergence counts. The colony swelled from 40 to 75 bats, so each emergence count was more exciting than the one before it. When she left us near the end of June, Ashley immortalized the tree with a drawing on our white board.

With the WNS decontamination protocols and DNA/hair samples for every bat, running the table at a mistnet site has become a complex endeavor. Because Ashley did not have her rabies shots, taking down data and manning the table became her job when we netted for bats. All of us were impressed with her ability to multitask, keeping data and equipment straight when two or three people were calling out weights, forearm measurements, and times for new captures. Ashley enjoyed this aspect of the job, and I think she learned the importance of being diligent about data collection.

Joy O'Keefe inspecting a bat

For my crew and me, a novel part of having a young scientist in our midst was watching her interests emerge and evolve over the short time that she was with us. Ashley came to the mountains for bats, but I think she left realizing that she was even more fascinated with things that creep and crawl. There was no invertebrate, reptile, or amphibian that did not excite her. On a rainy night when we couldn’t net for bats, Ashley was thrilled when I suggested a herp walk down the trail and even more thrilled to find slugs, a garter snake, and dusky salamanders. From then on, whenever one of us found a cool insect, our first thought was to show it to Ashley. Weeks after she’d left, my technician Joey was still saying, “If Ashley were here, she’d really like this spider…praying mantis…beetle.” When I returned home for a few days, I grabbed a textbook on freshwater invertebrates to bring back to Ashley; in the few days she had left with us, Ashley devoured as much of the book as she could.

My experience with Ashley gave me great hope, because Ashley had a heightened appreciation for creatures, including bats, which many people think of as undesirable. I think her father, an avid caver and nature buff, played a big part in fostering this appreciation in Ashley. I hope that I helped to further Ashley’s interests, while also teaching her a little about how to ask and answer research questions. Ashley taught me that a little enthusiasm can go a long way – my crew and I still miss her curiosity and fervor for the natural world.