“I guess just a bit about me: I’ve been into wildlife since day one and I count myself as very lucky that I am able to pursue my passion doing research and honestly loving my life”
Spoken like a true wildlifer! The charming chiropterologist, Reilly Jackson (pronouns: she/her) is a third-year PhD student at the University of Arkansas in the United States studying risks of pathogen transmission between bats and humans in south-eastern Kenya. We caught up to discuss her research project as well as the steps she’s taken to live her dreams of working in wildlife research. Reilly shares her advice on how you too can choose this career path and follow your passions!
Reilly’s research focuses on disease ecology and understanding (and mitigating) the risks of what she calls zoonotic pathogen spillover or simply put disease transfer between bats and humans. Reilly works through a lab that works across Finland, Kenya and the USA. Her field work involves working with several species of bats in rural, south-eastern Kenya, just above the Tanzanian border.
Of the 108 bat species described in Kenya, there are about 30-40 species that occur in the area where Reilly studies. And she concentrates on three species in particular: two types of free-tail bats and the heart-nosed bat, which she catches using mist nets at roost sites.
“I am super fortunate in that I get to work with bats in Kenya, and I specifically work with different ecological principles about bats like roosting and movement that might allow for understanding opportunities for what we call zoonotic pathogen spillover. So, my project looks at human-wildlife conflict and how that might relate to opportunities for disease transfer”
Reilly works to understand contact between humans and bats that could facilitate this disease transmission, especially as they move into human dwellings. In rural Kenya, there’s two prevalent viewpoints about bats. One involves a huge amount of negative stigma about bats so, people fear them and largely avoid them, leaving them alone to do their own thing. On the flip side, there is persecution of bats in this area because they are associated with bad magic.
“People see them as bad omens and if you have a bat in your house, your house is cursed and you need get rid of them – so, it’s really interesting from both an ecological and an anthropological standpoint”
BATS: CRIMINALLY MISUNDERSTOOD
Bats are fascinating from an ecological standpoint – the only mammals capable of true flight, able to navigate and communicate using echolocation and they are found across most of the world. And yet there’s a negative stigma surrounding their presence and their capacity to bite.
Reilly explains that while she is vaccinated against rabies and certainly doesn’t recommend people go around picking up bats, she has never had problems with bats.
“I’ve been working with bats for about 10 years now. And so, I’ve probably been bitten by numerous bats. And there are people that have been working with bats since the fifties and sixties and they’re still totally fine.”
As Reilly targets roost sites for her research where healthy bats are likely hanging out, she explains she’s not usually too worried if she gets bitten. In terms of other diseases that bats carry the percentage of bats infected with pathogens is extremely low. However, as bats are small, fast-moving and nocturnal, oftentimes the only bats that people in the community encounter are usually sick bats that are out in the daylight or found on the ground and these have potential to be carrying disease.
Over the past couple of years, bats have been in the media thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and copped a lot of bad press unnecessarily because of it. Bats are already an stigmatized group, and are viewed as largely uncharismatic creatures in the public eye and are even labelled as creepy, dirty or even disease-ridden and dangerous! But is that a fair picture paint of these
It turns out that bats are criminally misrepresented! Reilly explains –
“While bats are great reservoirs for many viruses, especially the rabies virus and have evolved for millenia with coronaviruses, there is currently no evidence that a bat transmitted SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, to a human – but this is why they were implicated in the pandemic.”
Bats have had the rough end of the stick for a long time now, making it challenging to raise awareness for their exceptional value as a group – as pollinators, pest controllers, seed dispersers and integral parts of their ecosystems – as well as the growing need to understand them, study and conserve them. As Reilly says –
“It’s mind boggling to think about just how much our lives are bettered by the fact that bats exist. For example, they are major pest suppressors, saving US farmers over US $20 billion per year by eating insects… they do so much for this planet and they are not recognized for it by the general public.”
Reilly began her Bachelor’s degree in marine biology in California but found there minimal contact between young undergrads and professors, making it hard to get into labs and other research experiences. So, Reilly transferred to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, which has a great wildlife program and got a position in a national park to make the switch easier on her Mum.
“I was able to have this first amazing field season mist-netting for birds before starting my new degree and from the people I met, the major message I was hearing was that you need to get experiences as early as possible to make you hirable down the track.”
A diversity of experiences with different taxa at different projects. In her first few weeks at the new University, Reilly was looking around for some of those opportunities.
“And one that popped up was with a graduate student looking for a technician to help her catch bats during the winter. Luckily, I had mist-netting experience from the summer before so I applied and was a great fit.”
That was back in 2013. Through that project and many subsequent ones, the bats stole her heart and she’s dedicated her focus and research to them ever since in the US, Belize, across south-east Asia and now Kenya.
“Before then, I thought bats were cool, and I’d seen them here and there, but I’d really not thought that much about them, and you know, they’ve been an amazing species to work with!”
GRATITUDE & ECOLOGY
Something that shines through when speaking with Reilly is how appreciative she is of her experiences in the industry. We asked Reilly to explain the importance for her of gratitude in ecology.
“One of the major reasons a lot of us passionate people pursue this kind of work is because we get some of that internal gratitude feeling – just being able to do what we do.”
And it’s also about making a positive impact on the natural world covered in wounds.
“There’s that quote that says if you have an ecological education, you live in a world of wounds, because of the state of nature. I think we are so privileged and so fortunate to work in a field like this, to be able to have positive impacts for conservation – that’s a huge driving force for me.”
But, as Reilly says, it’s unfortunate that our passion can only take us so far –
“Lots of people struggle to get paid positions in this field, especially permanent long-term position.”
Reilly’s top 3 pointers for pursuing your passions to work with wildlife are:
- Build your experience – with a variety of taxa and different projects
“And in getting involved on different projetcs, this will expand your network and build your contacts which is particularly important in this field”
- You don’t have to take unpaid positions or grad-school programs
“If the position sounds amazing but it doesn’t pay anything, don’t feel that you have to take that because there are people out there that will pay you for your time. Same thing with Masters and PhD programs – there are thousands of research projects that need to be done by graduate students and there are grants available”
- Conservation is increasingly becoming a multi-disciplinary field – especially in Reilly’s niche of human-wildlife conflict, so build and acknowledge your transferrable skills.
KEEP IN TOUCH
Want to hear more from Reilly? Tune into the podcast to listen to our conversation. You can follow her adventures on Instagram @coolkinkajous or Facebook and you can check out some of her scientific work here. And if you’re interested in potentially pursuing a Master’s or PhD project with the same Disease Ecology lab as Reilly based at the University of Arkansas, check out the website.
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