This summer, Amanda Lickfeld ’09 and David Haughey ’09 are working under the direction of Assistant Professor of Biology Kristy Kenyon to study the molecular basis of the bat visual system. The students have learned to master techniques that help scientists characterize DNA gene sequences that code for proteins that respond to light. This research will provide important insights into the visual capabilities of a primarily nocturnal species.
The goal “is to understand how bats see their world,” says Kenyon, who is studying Myotis lucifugus, commonly known as the “little brown bat,” as part of a research collaboration with Professor of Biology James Ryan and Assistant Professor of Biology Mark Deutschlander. The study of bat genes is part of a multi-layered project that investigates bat vision using anatomical, physiological and cellular methods.
Myotis lucifugus may be one of the most common bats in North America, but there are plenty of unanswered questions about the species. Historically, studies of bats have often focused on their ability to use echolocation as a primary sensory input. The visual system has not been a major area of interest in bat research; in part because it was assumed that bats had limited potential for color vision.
“Recent evidence suggests otherwise,” says Kenyon. “For example, we have shown that the bat retina contains a substantial population of photoreceptor cells necessary for color vision. What are they seeing and what are they using vision for are two key questions that remain unanswered at this point.”
Kenyon began recruiting students to help her find out: putting together pieces of a genetic puzzle she describes as a paragraph being revealed one letter at a time. It may sound like a steep learning curve for undergraduate lab work, but Haughey and Lickfeld have enjoyed the challenge.
“Research can be both frustrating and rewarding,” says Haughey, who is interested in a career in the medical field, “but 90 percent of this project has been very successful. We’re getting good results and it has been an awesome experience – I’ll be able to use the stuff I learned forever.”
“I’ve always wanted to try research like this,” says Lickfeld. “Anyone who’s trying to make a career in the sciences needs to have an experience like this. You’ll never know what problems you’ll run into or what you’ll encounter each day – but you also learn how to overcome it.”
Kenyon appreciates the new ideas that her students bring to the table. “I value the opportunity to work with undergrads,” she says. “They have a fresh perspective, one that helps you consider avenues of inquiry that you may not have thought of. It helps me to think in a more holistic way and I learn a great deal from them as well.”
Haughey and Lickfeld say that they’re very close to a finished product and a clearer picture of the inner workings of the bat eye.
“One of the most valuable experiences we can give students in their college training is active participation in scientific research,” says Kenyon. And no matter what career path these student researchers end up taking, that’s one bit of knowledge that’s not batty at all.