A journey in science: Q&A with alumna Dr Clare Stawski

Published 23 August 2018

Science can take you places - literally and metaphorically. Just ask former UNE postdoctoral research fellow Dr Clare Stawski. She spent seven years with us, first as a PhD student, earning postdoctoral postings in Poland and Vienna, before returning to UNE on a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. This was followed by a prestigious Discovery Early Career Researcher Award.

Now Clare's an Associate Professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, wandering the forests north of Oslo researching Norwegian bats. But one thing hasn't changed - her fascination for how small mammals cope with bad weather and changing environmental conditions.

Here, we talk to Clare about the science in her life.

What inspired your interest in the ecology and thermal physiology of mammals, and bats in particular?

I was interested in animals from a young age and my passion for biology grew during high school. The interest in thermal physiology developed in my final year of my undergraduate studies at the University of Queensland. We were learning about hibernation in echidnas and I found it fascinating that even mammals can have a variable body temperature.

I actually researched thermal physiology in reptiles during my Honours but I couldn’t forget the hibernating echidna. So, after my Honours, I approached Professor Fritz Geiser at UNE, a world-wide expert in torpor, about undertaking a PhD with him. He suggested that bats would be an interesting study subject and, as many bat researchers will tell you, once you work with bats you develop a great affinity for them.

I have since worked with many other small mammals, including bank voles in Poland and several species of marsupials, but I have always maintained my interest in bats. For such a small mammal they have extraordinarily long lifespans and many species spend most of their life torpid, with huge fluctuations in their body temperature, metabolic rate and heart rate. They are also very important ecologically. The insect-eating bats are exceptional at controlling insect populations, and the fruit and nectar-eating bats are essential for pollinating these plants. Many forests would go extinct without them.

The more we understand about how animals balance their daily energy expenditure, the more we will also understand how they use the habitat they live in, which can inform management and conservation practices.

What does your role as an Associate Professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology involve?

I am not only a researcher, but a teacher in the physiology group. I present lectures and practicals to undergraduate and postgraduate physiology students and I am also supervising three Masters students, two of which have been working on bats and the third on Arctic foxes. I will also shortly be supervising PhD students researching bats and other small mammals in Norway. We will be investigating how the physiology of these small mammals varies in different parts of their range.

My Norwegian is coming along slowly. Last semester I completed level 1 Norwegian and passed all my exams, and I begin level 2 next week. I can understand quite a bit if the person is speaking slowly but forming my own sentences to say something is very difficult!

Are there international applications to what you are learning about the thermal physiology of insectivorous bats?

Habitats and species differ around the world, which means that physiologically they are often quite different. This emphasises the importance of researching a wide range of animals, rather than just assuming that they will respond in the same way to environmental change. However, it is important to standardise methodology as much as possible so that results can be compared. We need to get as much data as possible on many species so we can better inform management policies for conservation purposes.

What was the value of completing your PhD at UNE?

I was able to learn a lot about thermal physiology and field and laboratory research from Professor Fritz Geiser and his group. As a world-wide expert in torpor, his was the ideal research group in which to gain knowledge about this fascinating mechanism. UNE is in a great location, with a lot of natural areas in which to undertake field research.

Why did you return to UNE as a postdoctoral research fellow after stints abroad?

After spending two years undertaking laboratory research in Poland, I was looking forward to getting back out into nature. Fritz’s research group was starting a project on how torpor may be beneficial when it comes to surviving fires, which I felt was a very important area of research due to the ever-increasing occurrence of wildfires. Subsequently, I developed a project on how mammals can cope, or not cope, with habitat degradation, another increasing global threat. With this project I was successful in obtaining the Discovery Early Career Research Award from the Australian Research Council.

How has your time at UNE equipped you for your current roles/research?

UNE and all members of the Geiser lab equipped me with vital knowledge and skills to undertake physiological research, both in the field and in the laboratory. During my time at UNE I also presented lectures and practicals, which enhanced my teaching skills, and I also supervised Honours and PhD students, which is helpful in my current role.

What do you enjoy about being a scientist? 

Conducting research takes me to places I would probably not have gone to otherwise. I have seen many beautiful wild areas that are untouched or at least very rarely visited by other humans. I have also seen many wonderful animals. When you need to sit still for a long time waiting for equipment to turn on it is amazing what animals will approach you, such as a sugar glider and a young cassowary, just to name a few. I also really like teaching and discussing topics with passionate students and to see them develop throughout their careers. Finally, being a scientist enables me to help animals. Unfortunately, we humans have ruined the planet quite a bit, so I hope that my research can help us to protect its many special creatures.

In this story: