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Research takes local grad to Texas

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Emma Kunkel always had enjoyed the arts, assuming she would have a career as a writer or novelist, but a Grade 11 chemistry class changed how she felt about science.

Now, after graduating with an Honours Bachelor of Science degree in biopsychology from the University of Winnipeg in June, she's heading down to Texas Tech University in Lubbock to continue her studies.

During her Grade 10 year at Fort High, Kunkel took a Grade 11 chemistry class and said something just clicked.

“Growing up, I always was reading lots of book and doing lots of writing—I always thought I wanted to be a writer or some kind of novelist,” she recalled.

"I just assumed that science wasn't my thing.

“But I took that Grade 11 chemistry class at Fort High and I just remember being so enthralled in a way that I had never been enthralled before.”

Kunkel grew up in Fort Frances, moving to Winnipeg in 2011 to finish high school after receiving a scholarship to attend the University of Winnipeg Collegiate.

There, she continued to explore her newfound interest in science, taking biology, physics, and calculus classes.

“I think the thing that I liked most was being able to answer questions and get to the bottom of why things are the way that they are and why they work the way that they do,” Kunkel noted.

Still, when it came to choosing a university major, she found herself torn between majoring in arts or in science. Arts was something she naturally had gravitated to throughout her life and she still found science challenging.

That challenge ultimately is what drove Kunkel to science and she began her Bachelor of Science degree, majoring in biopsychology, in 2013, which is the study of how the brain and other aspects of biology influence behaviours, thoughts, and feelings.

“I definitely find it very challenging but very, very rewarding,” she remarked.

A few years into her undergraduate degree, Kunkel applied for and secured an assistant research position on Dr. Craig Willis' “Bat Lab” team.

The biopsychology program requires students to take animal physiology courses and one of the courses Kunkel attended was taught by Dr. Willis.

“Even though we were talking about heart physiology, muscle physiology, kidney physiology—everything, he just kept linking it back to bats over and over,” Kunkel explained.

“As I was taking this class, he kept having a bat example for everything so by the end of it, I was just super-interested in what make bats so unique and what kinds of questions we can answer.”

She added one of the reasons why she finds bats so fascinating is because of what they can do despite their small size.

The little brown bat species is what Kunkel mostly studied. They weigh about six-eight grams, have only one baby per year, and can live for up to 30 years.

In addition, they can tolerate low concentrations of oxygen, and some can be very social while others are solitary.

“There's so many different mutations of every different physiological aspect and every different social aspect," Kunkel noted. "There's just so many different questions you can answer.”

She was hired to the bat lab in the summer of 2016, even though she hadn't secured her undergraduate degree yet.

“One of the things that I'm really stoked about, and interested in doing, is encouraging young women scientists, obviously under-represented in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics],” said Dr. Willis.

“Encouraging confidence and enthusiasm for science, it's something that we try and do and Emma is confident, incredibly hard-working, obviously very smart—the perfect combination of traits to be super successful,” he lauded.

Kunkel said the team was very welcoming and offered her experiences she wouldn't have had had the lab required she first finish her degree.

A major research project of the “Bat Lab” is the effects of White Nose Syndrome (WNS), a disease that affects a bat's behaviour, causing them to fly out of hibernation sites—even in the middle of winter.

It also causes damage to the bat, such as leaving holes in its wings.

Kunkel and the team of researchers were in Kenora District, where the invasive species has been around for a couple of years.

During her first summer with the “Bat Lab,” she and a team of researchers travelled around Manitoba and Northern Ontario visiting different areas where bats would roost, catching them, and then looking for WNS and also microchipping them.

The research led to long nights, extensive hours in the lab, crawling through caves in the forest, and wearing uncomfortable gear.

“You can never wipe the smile off her face," said Dr. Willis. ”You could not make her stop smiling and you could not keep her from being enthusiastic about what we're doing.

“Just a great moral booster for the whole team.”

He added Kunkel also has been helping the “Bat Lab" promote its citizen science program, "Neighbourhood Bat Watch” (https://batwatch.ca), where people who have bat colonies, or know of bat colonies, can report their observations.

These reports help the team in understanding trends and populations of the colonies across Canada.

After the project, Kunkel began to lead and assist with quite a few other research projects.

Later that year, Kunkel attended a conference in San Antonio, Tex., entitled the North American Symposium for Bat Research, and presented a poster on a research project that she had led over the summer on the relationship between core, fur, and skin temperature in little brown bats.

She won an award for her presentation, overcoming many Masters and Ph.D. students, called the Basically Bats Wildlife Conservation Society Award.

“That was actually the moment where I gained the confidence to like, 'I could actually, maybe, be good at this,'” she remarked.

More recently, Kunkel gave an outreach presentation to the MNRF's “Earth Rangers,” the associate team lead, and a few district biologists at the MNRF office here.

The presentation spoke about bats and their life history, as well as the habitat enhancement research and WNS. She also set up bat nets and traps to show the group how the bats are caught and what to do after they catch one.

“It was a bit hands on, too," said Kunkel. "It was a really great way to spend an afternoon.”

The “Earth Rangers” recently had built a few bat houses, prompting the invitation for the presentation. And the response was very positive.

“I don't like tooting my own horn but everyone seemed really happy at the end of the day so I think it was super lovely,” she said.

“I had a great time talking with everyone," she added. "It was so great to see so many enthusiastic people about bats right where I come from!”

Kunkel has now moved to Lubbock to pursue her Masters in Science (M.Sc.)

“I decided to go there because of the supervisor that I get to work with,” she noted.

After about a year of researching various graduate programs and supervisors, Kunkel decided on Texas Tech University.

“How I picked who I wanted to work for was just by reading a lot of research, a lot of papers, to try to see what I was interested in,” she explained.

“Every ecophysiology paper I read, every paper that I read that got me really excited about science, was always written by the same professor named Liam McGuire.”

Kunkel met Dr. McGuire, who also is a former post-doctoral research fellow of the “Bat Lab," at the conference in San Antonio in 2016 and noted she was "lucky enough that he was able to take me into his lab.”

“He's a really sharp and up-and-coming scientist working on similar questions but some very different questions, [too],” said Dr. Willis.

“He studies migration, as well as hibernation, and I think Emma's going to have a fantastic opportunity there to work with another really strong team.”

Since her acceptance into Texas Tech, Kunkel has received fellowships to fund her research, as well as to fund moving expenses.

She and Dr. McGuire have been bouncing a “smorgasbord” of ideas off each other, which Kunkel said is great, especially in field research when almost anything, like changes in weather, can ruin a project.

She is hoping to look into the physiology of the Brazilian free-tailed bat, observing a subset of the population that tends to overwinter despite being classified as a migratory species.

“Trying to think of questions, trying to answer questions, putting in the time in the field, it's definitely very, very difficult,” Kunkel admitted.

“But being able to be a part of conversation, being able to understand why a species is endangered, being able to potentially help that endangered species—I find it incredibly rewarding.”

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