by Taran Lichtenberger
**Editor's note: This post is part of a series highlighting members of the ComSciCon community who recently attended the AAAS Annual Meeting, which took place from February 13-16, 2020 in Seattle, WA.**
Edna Chiang, a fourth year microbiology PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studies the gut microbes of hibernating ground squirrels, but the research’s bigger picture is way beyond the gut. Think space. A better understanding of the relationship between microbes and their hosts reveals energy and nutrient fluctuations that occur during hibernation. If we can better understand how squirrels hibernate and stay healthy we may start asking questions about how humans could hibernate and stay healthy, especially on long space flights or emergencies in space. For long space travel, hibernating humans would require fewer resources in the form of food or drink, leaving more room for fuel. A bit closer to home, imagine a crew at the International Space Station needed to be rescued. If they could hibernate-even for a short time-they would have a better chance of being successfully rescued.
When squirrels hibernate they transition from feasting to fasting, a period of excessive eating to no eating at all. “This is a huge change in their diet which also impacts the microbes in their gut,” Edna explained. The microbial community can use what the squirrel has ingested for energy, but which microbes are in the gut during this transition as well as their functions remains unclear. Edna researches the genomic composition of the squirrel microbiome and has found differing results depending on how she analyzes her data. One gene database indicates that gut microbiomes are completely different in summer, winter, and spring. Another database reveals that the spring and summer gut microbes may be more similar while the winter microbial community is different. Now it is up to Edna to interpret these contradicting results.
Presenting microbiology to audiences outside of her field, like at the recent AAAS meeting, isn’t as easy as Edna makes it look, but she does an amazing job. In fact, she was awarded a Student E-Poster honorable mention in the category Biochemistry and Molecular Biology for her presentation at the meeting. She had been interested in science communication since before graduate school, spurred by a mentor to present science in a way that was accessible for everyone. Keeping this in mind, Edna chose UW-Madison in part because of their Life Sciences Communications department. She recently completed all the requirements for the PhD minor, which has helped her build her science communication confidence. She built on this by confidence by attending ComSciCon-Chicago in 2019. Emphasizing that it was a “phenomenal experience” she enjoyed the supportive group of graduate students all interested in connecting with a strong communication community.
When asked about her next steps, Edna says she is looking forward to a career that will allow her to "digest science and share it in a way that other people can get excited about” while also helping “scientists to find their voice and their story that they can share with others to get other people excited about their work".
The opportunity to present at AAAS allows graduate students, like Edna, to share their research and flex their science communication muscles.
Taran M. Lichtenberger is a Northwestern University and Chicago Botanic Garden Plant Biology and Conservation Master’s student studying how intraspecific diversity can improve restoration efforts. She is also very passionate about sharing science with others, serving on the organizational board of HerStory-Chicago and as a Social Media Liaison with the Botanical Society of America. You can find her on Twitter @plant_taran.