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Saint Mary’s professor researches bats

| Thursday, March 31, 2016

Laura Kloepper, an assistant professor of biology at Saint Mary’s, will be joined by two undergraduate students to study bat echolocation this summer thanks to a grant from the Office of Naval Research 2016 Young Investigator Program Award (YIP), for her project “Biologically inspired approaches to overcome mutual interference by active sensor system.”

According to the Office of Naval Research website, “YIP seeks to identify and support academic scientists and engineers who are in their  first or second full-time tenure-track or tenure-track-equivalent academic appointment … and who show exceptional promise for doing creative research.”

Through her project, Kloepper will combine biology, physics and engineering to determine how bats manage to avoid interference when leaving caves at over 1,000 bats per second.

“They’re making these echolocation sounds in really dense groups, and they should be ‘jamming’ each other, but somehow they’re able to overcome this challenge and still be able to use their echolocation,” Kloepper said. “Everything we know now says they shouldn’t be as good at echolocation as they are, which means we’re missing something that they’re doing.”

As society gradually moves towards a more automated society, the Navy and general public have an increased interest in sonar and radar technology due to its influences on everything from unmanned vehicles to backup sensors on cars, she said.

To explore bat echolocation and interference, Kloepper will use the program money over the course of three years to fund a team including herself, two Saint Mary’s students and engineers to study bat caves.

“My work really is about as interdisciplinary as you can get,” Kloepper said. “I’m in the biology department but I use math, I use physics, I use computer programming. I use all these different fields of science in my work so I need to have the right team of people for this project to succeed.”

This summer, Kloepper, her dog and two students will road trip from South Bend, through Kansas and New Mexico and down to Texas, stopping at various bat cave sites along the way. At the sites, they will set up camp and record the sounds of bats with microphones in various arrangements, Kloepper said.

She said the information, paired with video analysis and thermal imagery, will be collected during the night and then analyzed during the day by the team and the help of some engineers. She said she is excited to provide this sort of focused field experience to Saint Mary’s juniors Stephanie Dreessen and Cassi Mardis.

“I think first and foremost it’s going to give the students a taste of what field work is truly like,” she said. “We do a lot of lab stuff on campus, but at most undergraduate institutions it’s hard to get a taste of what real field work is like. They’re also going to get a taste of what it’s like to do a long term project.” Kloepper said having time with students in remote areas lacking cell phone service and Wi-Fi breeds a great intense and scientific environment

“We’re going and recording the bats at night, and then during the day we’re sitting around the bunkhouse or campfire and we’re talking about what we observed, talking about what we’re finding in our data analysis, getting into really great science and life discussions,” she said. “I craved something like that as a student, and I never got that opportunity until I was in graduate school.”

Kloepper said she feels like an excited little kid when she thinks about going back to the caves and doing research, and she is excited to share that enthusiasm with her students when they step into the bat caves wearing rattlesnake protection boots up to their knees, tyvek suits, full face respirators and head gear to protect against the ammonia and histoplasmosis of the bats.

“A bat cave is the most bizarre, interesting environment,” Kloepper said. “You feel like an astronaut walking on another planet when you have the gear on like that.”

“It wasn’t until graduate school that I really got that field work, that gritty kind of the day in-day out work, when you’re so engrossed in your project … and you can’t stop thinking about it,” Kloepper said. “Some people hate that but I love it. I think situations like that bred creativity. When you’re in the midst of a question, that’s when you have the thing in the back of your head that says ‘huh, I wonder if … ’  and that can turn into its own research.”

Kloepper studied at Boston University and taught high school biology before pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Hawaii, where she studied dolphin echolocation. Kloepper’s interest in bats started during her post doctoral research after she saw a bat cave and identified a gap in bat research concerning echolocation in large, dense groups, she said.

“Science is never just this ‘ask a question, get the answer you’re done’. It’s an ongoing process, you’re always building questions on prior work. So when you can find that small area of a field where there hasn’t been much work done, you have much more opportunity to get ask bigger questions. I think I’ve done a pretty good job identifying the opening, the gap in the research and trying to say ‘ok, let’s take it from here,’” she said.

Kloepper said as both a professor and researcher, she embraces the opportunity to be the face of science for her students and for people who’s only image of a scientist comes from textbook pictures of Einstein or Darwin.

“You don’t have to be this old man cloistered away to do science,” she said. “The reality is not most scientists are like that. We’re young, we’re excited about our work, we’re on Twitter. This project isn’t just scientific papers with our colleagues. The most effective communication is when you can share your results and communication with the world … and everyone loves bats.”

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About Kathryn Marshall

Kathryn Marshall, Saint Mary's College '17, is a Biology and Humanistic Studies double major. Follow Kathryn on Twitter @kmarshallSMC

Contact Kathryn