As we gear up for Hidden Figures Revealed: Realizing the Dream, a panel discussion and screening of the 20th Century Fox movie production Hidden Figures in the LSU Union Theater on March 17, we are bringing you the voices and faces of some of our most outstanding women scientists in the LSU College of Science! Over the next few weeks, you'll hear about what it's like to be a woman, and a woman of color, in STEM, and how women scientists here at LSU are overcoming obstacles and realizing dreams.
Next up is Cathy Newman, a PhD candidate who conducts research with the LSU Museum of Natural Science in Chris Austin's herpetology lab. Below is a guest blog post by Cathy, in which she talks about her scientific research, adventures in the field and experiences as a woman researcher.
Guest blog post by Cathy Newman
I would love to say I have always wanted to be a scientist, but my training in biology actually did not begin until after I finished college. I went to college to become an elementary school teacher, but during my first year as a full-time teacher I realized that I really just wanted to teach science all day!
I went back to school to study science at the University of Alabama. A series of events led me to the lab of Dr. Leslie Rissler, where I quickly learned how much I enjoy studying amphibians. I completed a master’s degree in biology under Dr. Rissler, studying the genetics of the southern leopard frog (Rana sphenocephala). I discovered that the subspecies found only in peninsular Florida is actually not any different genetically (in their DNA) from the leopard frogs found along the rest of the southern Atlantic Coast.
In 2011, I joined Dr. Chris Austin’s lab as a PhD student at the LSU Museum of Natural Science. I grew up in Alabama, and my deep connection to the Southeast as home really drives my interest in this region’s amphibian biodiversity. One day during my first year at LSU, I was flipping through a field guide of eastern North American amphibians when a salamander species range map caught my attention. The southern redback salamander (Plethodon serratus) is found in the southern Appalachian Mountains and Piedmont, the Ouachita Mountains, the Ozark Mountains, and two places in Louisiana – but nowhere in-between, to our knowledge. This patchy distribution where groups of populations are isolated from each other across large distances is not very common in this region. I wanted to learn more about the history of this species and what its range might have looked like in the past.
I consider myself to be both an evolutionary biologist and an amphibian biologist because I’m interested in studying the genetics of amphibians and the factors that influence their geographic ranges. For example, one big question is how changes in temperature and precipitation over the last 100,000 years have caused amphibian species ranges to expand, contract, and/or move. Learning more about how amphibian species have responded to climate changes in the past can help us predict how they will respond to future climate change. We can use this knowledge to design effective strategies for protecting species from decline and extinction.
In my research, I use DNA sequencing and geographic information systems (GIS) spatial analysis to answer questions about phylogenetics (how species are related) and phylogeography (how genetic variation within a species is organized in geographic space, or on a map). My dissertation research has led to some unexpected and very interesting discoveries.
I was surprised to learn that the southern redback salamanders in the Kisatchie National Forest in Louisiana are actually more closely related to salamanders in the Ouachitas in Arkansas and Oklahoma than they are to salamanders at the other Louisiana site at the Sicily Island Wildlife Management Area. In its lifetime, a southern redback salamander doesn’t travel much farther than the extent of a single log, so we would expect that nearby populations would be more closely related than populations spread much farther apart.
This surprising relationship is at least partially explained by my second discovery from climate analyses using GIS modeling: the range of the southern redback salamander was much broader and contiguous across the Southeast during the cooler climate of the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), 21,000 years ago. So at some point in history, it is likely that Louisiana and the Ouachitas were connected by habitat suitable for this species instead of the geographic isolation we see today.
In addition to genetics lab work, my research also involves collecting salamanders in the field. The southern redback salamander is protected in Louisiana because of its small range in the state, so I cannot collect whole animals to study. Instead, I take a small part of the tail from a few salamanders at each site. This does not kill the animal or cause it any long-term harm, and we are able to extract high-quality DNA from these small tissue samples.
My project has not required extensive fieldwork, but any amount of scientific collection of protected species requires a special permit from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. A typical collecting trip for me involves making sure I have a copy of my permits, gathering my gear (razor blades, alcohol for sterilization, small tubes with alcohol to store the tail tips, notebook, GPS), driving about 2.5 hours to the field site, spending a few hours searching for salamanders and collecting tissue samples, and driving home.
The southern redback salamander is not found in East Baton Rouge Parish, but being a graduate student at LSU studying salamanders has sparked my interest in southeastern salamanders more generally. One of my favorite hobbies is hiking in the woods around Baton Rouge from late fall through mid-spring to look for salamanders – not to collect them for science, but to photograph them and make a note of the exact location and date where I find a certain species.
Salamanders basically breathe through their skin, so they have to stay moist. For that reason, most terrestrial species hang out in underground burrows during the hottest and driest parts of the year, so the best time to find many species on the surface (under logs and rocks) around Baton Rouge is October until April or May. I find spending the day hiking and searching for salamanders to be a relaxing and rejuvenating break from the demands of being a graduate student.
This season, I’ve been especially focused on one local site in particular: BREC’s Frenchtown Road Conservation Area. This is a fairly new park of almost 500 acres of bottomland hardwood forest – prime habitat for several terrestrial salamander species. This site grabbed my attention this year because it sits at the confluence of the Amite and Comite rivers, and almost the entire park was underwater for seven days during the flood of August 2016. At the peak of the flood, the lowest areas of the park were under nearly 20 feet of water!
Normal seasonal flooding with typical storms is not unusual for this part of the country, so we know that salamanders must have some way of avoiding being flooded out of their burrows, such as plugging the entrance with dirt. But none of the experts I talked to after the Baton Rouge flood had any idea whether or not salamanders could survive underground under many feet of water for one week. So in late October, once the weather cooled down, I went out to Frenchtown to look for salamanders.
To my very happy surprise, not only did I find salamanders, but I found two female marbled salamanders under the same log, guarding eggs. That would be a special find in any circumstance, but it was especially exciting to discover that they had managed to survive the most severe flood the area had ever seen.
One fun aspect of being a graduate student at the LSUMNS is that it gives me frequent opportunities to share our science with the public. I have volunteered on many occasions to show some of our amphibian and reptile specimens to school groups, LSU students, or to the general public at special events and talk about our region’s biodiversity and the value of museum collections. Through these events, I have learned a lot about the diversity of communities in southeastern Louisiana and that we as scientists need to be able to talk about our work from a variety of perspectives in order to reach people across backgrounds, lifestyles, and values.
I also enjoy sharing my research and field excursions on social media. I have built an extensive and growing network of science and non-science, academic and non-academic colleagues on Twitter, and I definitely have the widest audience through that venue. I am learning to be a more proficient Instagram user, as well, especially since I love photography. My Facebook network primarily consists of family and friends I know in person, and that is probably my best venue for sharing my science with non-scientists who value my work simply by virtue of our personal connection.
Throughout my academic career so far, I have been lucky to be in environments that are supportive to me as a woman in science. In particular, the LSUMNS and LSU Biological Sciences Department have provided a great group of female graduate students, postdocs, and faculty who are open to sharing their experiences and advice, as well as male colleagues who are sensitive to the issues we face. Especially given my late entrance into academic science, I have struggled maybe more than others in the field with imposter syndrome, but the positive feedback I have received from colleagues across the globe over the years has been a major boost to my self-confidence as a scientist. I have learned that networking is so important – to build connections not only for future job searches, but also for mutual support as fellow women in STEM.
Join us on March 17th to watch Hidden Figures, with scientists! Showtime is 5 p.m. in the LSU Student Union Theater. RSVP here.
FRIDAY, MARCH 17 | LSU UNION THEATER
- 3:45 p.m. Meet and greet with panelists
- 5 p.m. Movie Screening
- 7 p.m. Panel discussion
Open to the public!