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Dr. Sharlene Santana is Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Washington and Curator of Mammals at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. She completed her undergraduate training in biology at the University of the Andes in Venezuela, and she was awarded her Ph.D. in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Afterwards, Sharlene conducted postdoctoral research at the Institute for Society and Genetics at the University of California, Los Angeles. She joined the faculty at the University of Washington in 2012. In our interview, Sharlene shares more about her life and research.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:24)
Sharlene loves trying new restaurants in Seattle, as well as traveling to other countries and learning about other cultures. In her free time, you can find Sharlene hiking or swimming with her dog, attending ballet performances, and listening to music and podcasts. She is also a fan of good storytelling in books, movies, TV series, and documentaries.
The Scientific Side (3:46)
As an integrative and evolutionary biologist, Sharlene explores questions about evolution from a variety of perspectives. She is working to understand why some groups of organisms are more diverse in terms of their number of species, appearance, or behavior. There are over 1,400 species of bats that fulfill a variety of ecological roles, and much of Sharlene’s research focuses on diversity in bats.
A Dose of Motivation (7:39)
What Got You Hooked on Science? (10:09)
Sharlene was drawn to animals and the natural world early on in her childhood. She grew up in the tropics in Venezuela, and she had a large backyard, so she was surrounded by wildlife. In college, she chose to pursue the biology track, and her initial plan was to specialize in molecular biology. However, as Sharlene had opportunities to do field research and learn more about evolution, anatomy, and behavior, her interests shifted. Each student had to do a research thesis, and Sharlene worked on a project with a professor who studied bats. She was quickly hooked. Through her experience doing field research on a tropical fruit bat, Sharlene developed a solid understanding of what it was like to be a scientist, and she was convinced that this was the career she wanted to pursue.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (16:12)
While working in the field in Costa Rica, Sharlene and her team endured an entire month where it seemed like everything went wrong. During their trip, Costa Rica experienced the wettest July in the past 60 years. It was nearly constantly pouring rain every day and night. They started this trip with ambitious goals of collecting plant samples during the day, collecting bat samples at night, and doing behavioral experiments. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to collect as many plants as planned because the forest trails were flooded and there was a constant threat of falling branches and debris. They also couldn’t collect bats most nights because bats typically don’t fly and forage for food during heavy rain. It was frustrating and demoralizing. However, Sharlene and her lab adapted to the situation they were facing. They managed to collect some data whenever there was a break in the rain, and they reshaped their ideas and projects as they determined what would be feasible. Further, Sharlene made the most of the time spent sitting in her cabin waiting for the rain to stop. She wrote a fellowship application to do more related research, and she ultimately received this fellowship award. As a result, Sharlene was able to return later to continue research in this area.
A Shining Success! (19:11)
Recently, Sharlene was awarded funding by the National Science Foundation for one of her grant applications. This is an exciting collaborative project that will take her research in a new direction. Her prior work has predominantly examined how external factors, such as anatomy and behavior, shape evolution in bats and other mammals. However, this new project will investigate the genetics underlying the development of bat teeth, how genetic factors affect the diversity of dental shapes in bats, and the relationships with diet. After having submitted this series of studies unsuccessfully a few times previously, being able to finally dive into this research is particularly thrilling.
Book Recommendations (27:10)
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
Most Treasured Travel (28:14)
Panama is among the most memorable places Sharlene has visited. She went for the first time in graduate school, and she conducted field research there for several months at the Smithsonian Field Station on the island of Bocas Del Toro. The amount of biodiversity packed into such a small space, both in the land and in the water, was absolutely remarkable. There were also beautiful beaches within walking distance with excellent opportunities for snorkeling. It was paradise.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (32:07)
Sharlene’s PhD mentor planned a big Superbowl party at her house each year when Sharlene was in graduate school. Even though the lab wasn’t particularly interested in football, it was a fun way to build camaraderie, hang out, meet everyone’s families, and talk about things outside of science. Having grown up in another country, it was also fun for Sharlene to experience this tradition for the first time. In her current lab, Sharlene tries to get her lab members together for a barbecue each year, they plan lab retreats in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington, and they also do a lot of great outreach events with the Burke Museum of Natural History.
Advice For Us All (35:58)
Perseverance and adaptability are critical in science, particularly in our world where things are always changing and failures are common. Also, right now, it is critical that we all follow the measures necessary to contain the current global pandemic. This means washing your hands, wearing a mask, helping your community, and following the advice of experts.
Sharlene’s research focuses on understanding why some groups of mammals (particularly bats) are more diverse than others. As an integrative biologist, she combines expertise from multiple fields, including evolutionary biology, behavioral ecology, comparative anatomy, and biomechanics. While most of her work takes place in her lab at the University of Washington, it also involves fieldwork in biodiverse places like Costa Rica and Panama. Sharlene’s current projects examine various external and internal factors that may have driven the diversification of bats, or of highly diverse groups within bats. These include the anatomical and biomechanical specialization of the skull for different sensory and feeding strategies, the evolution of frugivory, and the facilitation of morphological change by development. Outside of work, Sharlene enjoys exploring the beautiful Pacific Northwest with her husband and dog, reading books, watching movies and documentaries, listening to music and podcasts, attending ballet performances, and traveling to exotic places.