Interview: Ecologist follows the call of the pika

Ecologist Johanna Verner talks about her career path from cell biology to engineering to a rocky mountainside to study pikas


An alpine pika (Ochotona alpina). 

Hedgenious/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

This week I had the opportunity to interview Johanna Varner. Johanna is a graduate student at the University of Utah. She studies pikas, small furry mammals related to rabbits, and how they respond to climate change. As part of her project, she is working with middle school students and other volunteers to monitor pikas and their behavior. This is a great opportunity to hear about her career so far and her hopes for her scientific future. Watch the video of our chat (which includes her stuffed pika, Clio), or read the transcript that follows.


Bethany: Hello and welcome to Eureka! Lab. My name is Bethany Brookshire, I’m the author of this blog, and I’m here to talk to you about loving science, working in science, and finding out what careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are all about. Welcome to another Google Hangout in our science careers series. I’m here with Johanna Varner, a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Utah, and who has a past life as a bioengineer. She is a very active pika researcher and lover who works very closely with the Cascades Pika Watch. Welcome Johanna!

Ms. Varner: Thanks! Glad to be here.

Bethany: I was wondering if you could give us a little background on what your job is now?

Johanna: Sure. Right now I’m a graduate student, which means that I’m currently pursuing my Ph.D. degree. So I come to school and I have an independent research project that I’m managing. I manage a group of undergraduate assistants during the summer, when we go out and collect data. During the winter I stay at home to analyze the data and try to write up my results and make sense of them.

Bethany: So, on a daily basis, for example when you’re going out in the field collecting data, what is your day like?

Johanna: We go and collect data during the summer. We get up early in the morning. I work with these animals called pikas, which I think we’re going to talk about in just a minute. We end up getting up very early in the morning when the pikas are most active. We end up watching them and writing down a lot of information about what they’re doing, what they’re eating and what behaviors they are doing. Then we usually have a few hours off in the afternoon and go back out in the evening and do the same thing. It’s actually a lot of camping and hiking and watching animals run around, which is kind of what I would do for fun if left to my own devices.

Bethany: So, pikas. They are really adorable, but can you tell me what they are?

Johanna: Yup, they are small mammals, closely related to rabbits. I have a stuffed animal here that you can see.

Bethany: Oooh, look at it!

Johanna: Let me take his little tie off. This is about life-sized, so they can fit in the palm of your hand. They are closely related to rabbits and hares, but they typically live in very high elevations in mountain ranges in western North America, so in the United States and Canada and Alaska.

Bethany: So why do you love them? I mean, they’re really cute, but why?

Johanna: First of all, they’re really cute. But the other reason is that they live in places I like to visit, like high in the mountains, usually above the tree line. Beyond that I think they are very interesting animals. They have a very interesting feeding strategy. Like most rabbits they are not able to hibernate through the winter. So in order to survive the winter up in the mountains that are covered in snow, they have to collect all the food that they are going to eat in the winter during the three months of the summer when there’s actually food available. So a single pika will collect up to 67 pounds of food to eat over the winter.

Bethany: Wow, that’s so much!

Johanna: For you and me, that would be like taking 25,000 trips to the grocery store during the three months of the summer. And during each trip to the grocery store you would be carrying approximately four heads of lettuce home. In your mouth.

So it’s an incredible amount of work these animals do, and I think it’s fascinating how they survive in such a harsh environment.

Bethany: What exactly are you looking for in your research right now?

Johanna: So I just told you that pikas usually live at very high elevations in the mountains. There’s some evidence that in response to climate change, they are dying off at elevations as low as 9,000 feet in places like Utah and Colorado. But they appear to be doing just fine in the Columbia River Gorge, near sea level. So I’m really fascinated by what is allowing the pikas to survive at such low elevations in a climate that appears to be totally unsuitable for them. It’s not good habitat based on what we know about their sensitivity to climate.

Bethany: So what did you end up finding when you looked at how pikas were surviving at low elevations?

Johanna: What’s interesting is that we’re finding that the low-elevation habitat seems to actually be better for pikas than nearby high-elevation pika habitat. And the reason for that is that the rockslides are covered in a very thick layer of moss.

The moss appears to serve two purposes for the pikas. One is that they are able to eat the moss in relatively large quantities. Because they are able to eat the moss, they don’t have to travel outside the rocks in order to find food, the way that they would if they were living in a rockslide next to a meadow, where they have to travel out of the rockslide and into the meadow. Instead they can just stay in the rocks and eat the food.

The second purpose is that the moss actually appears to cool the temperatures inside the rockslide. The moss acts sort of as an evaporative cooler. For people who live in dry climates, it’s a little like a swamp cooler. As water evaporates from the moss, it cools the rocks. So the temperatures in the rockslides at low elevations in the Columbia River Gorge are actually colder and less variable during the day than the temperatures in rockslides at higher elevations on Mt. Hood, which is just a few miles away.

Bethany: Wow. So with all this moss around, the pikas, as I think you said before, are basically living in the grocery store.

Johanna: Exactly.

Bethany: So they don’t need to work so hard to collect so much food.

Johanna: Right, they are living in an air-conditioned grocery store.

Bethany: But this wasn’t always what you did. What kind of trajectory has your career taken? What did you do before, and why did you switch?

Johanna: Yeah, well, I was pretty sure that I wanted to study science in high school. So I actually went to college at MIT in Boston. I studied molecular biology. I was working with some genes that are potentially involved in cancer, and I was studying worms. I spent a whole summer in a cold dark room by myself, watching cells divide in worms. It’s not as exciting as it seems.

Bethany: I’m sorry.

Johanna: And then after that I did a master’s degree in engineering. I was trying out engineering to see how I liked doing more quantitative work and design, more math. And my project for my master’s degree also involved spending a lot of time in a cold dark room by myself watching things through a microscope.

So I was kind of fed up and I quit. I got my master’s and I left. I came home. I grew up in Utah. I worked in a bakery, I did a lot of skiing. I kind of just unplugged for a couple of years. I went to New Zealand, and I picked blueberries and plums for about six months.

Then I had this sort of radical epiphany that there are people out there that do science and it’s outside. There are actually people who study things like pikas, which I love anyway from all of my hiking and camping experience, and they spend their time hiking and camping and watching pikas. And so I contacted a professor here at the University of Utah who had done her Ph.D. on pikas. And she gave me a chance, and so I worked actually as a technician for her studying a hantavirus, which is a deadly virus carried by mice in the deserts of western Utah, for a couple of years just to see if I liked field work and ecology, and I did. So then I started graduate school, and now I’ve been studying pikas for almost four years.

Bethany: That’s an amazing career trajectory. It’s wonderful that you’ve managed to really find something that that you love and that you can pursue.

Johanna: It’s pretty fabulous.

Bethany: So you like your new job. What do you love most about being a graduate student and studying pikas?

Johanna: I think honestly the thing I love most is going out and doing the field work. I get to spend all summer outside camping. You really kind of get to know the individual pikas when you do behavioral studies for so long. It’s a little creepy, sitting out there and watching their every move for three months.

Bethany: You’re a pika stalker!

Johanna: Yup, exactly.

Bethany: Do you give them names?

Johanna: Yeah, they get names. My undergraduate students that work with me, they name them all.

Bethany: So this is awesome, you get to go out and collect data and spend time in the place that you love most. Is there anything less satisfying, difficult or frustrating?

Johanna: Definitely. Spending all winter in front of the computer sometimes gets a little hard. Luckily, I live in a place where I can ski in my free time. That helps a lot.

But I think the other thing is that careers in basic research are pretty hard right now. There’s not a lot of money, so depending on the political climate in Washington, there’s just not a lot of money for science. That means it’s sometimes hard to get enough money to get your research done. Research is really expensive. It requires a lot of investment, and most of that investment comes from the federal government. So I wish that the funding situation was a little bit better.

Bethany: I think we all do.

Johanna: Yup. And when there’s not a lot of funding, it gets very competitive. So it kind of fosters an attitude of pitting people against each other to get the money. And that is something that I wish was a little different in science today.

Bethany: Before you were an engineer, you did cell biology and now you’re doing ecology. You’ve always really been involved in science. What was the first thing that really made you want to do science as a career?

Johanna: That’s a good question. I think I always just loved the idea of discovering something new, and advancing our understanding of how the world around us works. And I think particularly in ecology, it’s given me a much deeper understanding of nature. So that when I’m out skiing or hiking, I have a little bit more appreciation for what is happening out there and all the other types of organisms trying to survive out there.

Bethany: That’s great. So as part of your work with pikas you’re very involved in citizen science. You work with a lot of students. How did you get these people and the schools involved in your work?

Johanna: My first year of grad school I was fortunate enough to participate in a program called Think Globally, Act Locally (TGAL). It pairs graduate students in science with local K-12 schools. I was very fortunate in that I fell in with some teachers who were also very excited about pikas and they wanted to get their students involved, and so together we set about designing a program to get 7th grade students in Salt Lake City involved. We’ve got one school right now, and we’re expanding to other schools. Once we get all the methods ironed out we’ll be getting big class groups up to help monitor the pikas.

What’s really cool about that is that in Utah we have the Uinta Mountains. The Uinta Mountains have a unique subspecies of pikas. There’s not much data that exists out there in terms of how these pikas are coping with climate change or responding to climate change.

And so what we’re hoping to do is set up a monitoring system where we are checking on the pikas every year at three sites along an elevation gradient. So that means that we are starting at very low sites where the temperatures are much warmer and we’re moving all the way up to the tops of mountains where it’s very cold and there’s snow for a long period of time. And the kids are doing all the work. So you guys out there watching this are totally prepared to be pika scientists if you want.

Bethany: It’s great that these kids get experience doing science, and they get to contribute data to your future paper.

Johanna: Exactly.

Bethany: You’re very involved in citizen science now and you’re getting your Ph.D. in ecology. What do you hope to do in the future? Where do you hope your career will go?

Johanna: I’m actually really hoping to follow up and spend more time with citizen science stuff. I think that there’s a unique opportunity for people out there in all walks of life to get involved with science and research. To understand how science happens and how research happens. And beyond that there are opportunities to interact with nature in local natural environments.

I kind of think it takes a special kind of scientist to want to interact with people like that, in a way that a lot of other scientists maybe aren’t good fits for. They don’t really like talking to people, they like looking through microscopes in cold dark rooms by themselves.

Bethany: Well, some do, some don’t.

Johanna: And so kind of what I’m hoping to do is make a space for myself in organizing and managing citizen science programs. To work with people and try to collect data that can inform our understanding of the natural world.

Bethany: That sounds amazing! I look forward to your citizen science programs. I would go watch pikas for science in a minute.

Johanna: I know. I would, too. Wait, I do!

Bethany: Do you have any advice for students who might be interested in ecology as a career or interested in a career in science? Do you have any advice for what they can do to help promote their dreams?

Johanna: My biggest piece of advice is to never be afraid to just contact somebody out of the blue when there’s somebody you want to talk to. It’s always worth it to just send an e-mail or call and say “Hi, I’m Jo. I really love pikas, I really want to work on pikas with you.” If you are motivated and enthusiastic about it, chances are they’ll give you a chance.

That’s what happened with me. I read this newspaper article and I got this woman’s name and I emailed her and I said, “I want to work on pikas with you.” She gave me a chance. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to make those contacts. I know it feels weird to just call people up, especially if you’re still in high school or college. But it’s totally worth it, and people are a lot less likely ignore you than you think.

Bethany: Yeah, I mean the worst they can say is no, right?

Johanna: Exactly.

Bethany: Ok, last question, and this is the question I ask everyone. What is the weirdest thing you have ever done in the name of science?

Johanna: I’ve done a lot of really weird things. That’s a question I could answer for a very long time! But I think probably one of the weirdest things that I’ve done was that I was sitting there watching a pika. We were collecting scat samples. We were trying to back up our observations of what pikas were eating with evidence from what’s in their poop.

And so my field assistant and I got really good at recognizing what pikas look like when they’re pooping. And then immediately afterwards running up and chasing them off the rock and collecting the sample into a solution that would preserve it.

Bethany: So you have learned the pika’s pooping face.

Johanna: Yeah.

Unfortunately, we lost video with Johanna after that. Thank you so much, Johanna, for coming out and telling us about your life in science!

Power words

climate  The weather conditions prevailing in an area in general or over a long period.

climate change  Long-term, significant change in the climate of Earth. It can happen naturally or in response to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests.

Columbia River Gorge  The narrow valley that runs through southern Washington and northern Oregon. It runs through the Cascades mountain range and the Columbia River flows through it.

ecology  A branch of biology that deals with the relationships of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings. A scientist who works in this field is called an ecologist.

elevation  The measure of how high a geographic location is in reference to the average height of the ocean’s suface, or sea level. Elevation is usually given as the number of feet or meters above or below sea level.

engineering  The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems.

evolution  A process by which species undergo changes over time, usually through genetic variation and natural selection, that leaves a new type of organism better suited for its environment than the earlier type. The newer type is not necessarily more “advanced,” just better adapted to the conditions in which it developed.

evolutionary biologist  Someone who studies the adaptive processes that have led to the diversity of life on Earth. These scientists can study many different subjects, including the microbiology and genetics of living organisms, how species change to adapt, and the fossil record (to assess how various ancient species are related to each other and to modern-day relatives).

evaporative cooler  A device which cools the air around it by evaporating water. It is also known as a swamp cooler, desert cooler or wet air cooler, and is used frequently as air conditioning in dry areas like the American West.

field assistant  A job where people, often students or college graduates, can conduct research outside in a natural area. These jobs often provide important experience for those who would like to pursue science as a career.

graduate student  Someone working toward an advanced degree by taking classes and performing research. This work is done after the student has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).

hantavirus  A virus that is carried by rodents in western Utah. While the virus doesn’t cause disease in rodents, if humans come in contact with urine or feces from rodents infected with a hantavirus, they can suffer from a severe lung disease.

Ph.D.  (also known as a doctorate) Advanced degrees offered by universities — typically after five or six years of study — for work that creates new knowledge. People qualify to begin this type of graduate study only after having first completed a college degree (a program that typically takes four years of study).

pika  Any member of the family Ochotonidae. These are lagomorphs, and closely related to rabbits and hares. They live in cold climates all over the world, including Asia, North America, and Europe. They live in rocky areas, and collect plants during the summer into haypiles which last them through the winter.  Pikas are known for their high pitched alarm calls.

Uinta Mountains  A chain of mountains that runs east to west from northeastern Utah to southern Wyoming. They are a subrange of the Rocky Mountains.

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.