Currently an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University-Newark, Sara Ruane gives us an insight into her work with snake systematics, the importance of snakes in our ecosystems and her love for these remarkable animals.
What is your current job and what is your research focus?
I am an Assistant professor at Rutgers University-Newark, New York as of January 2017. I have a fully functional molecular lab, space and resources to work on preserved specimens and my lab is involved with doing fieldwork both locally, in New Jersey and internationally.
My research largely focuses on the systematics of snakes… anything to do with snakes, I’m wild about! Most of the work I do falls under evolutionary biology and systematics which involves molecular data and phylogeographic studies. Some new topics we are currently exploring, are tools used in phylogenetics and evolution such as transcriptomics, which looks at genome expression and how it relates to environmental adaptiveness.
The kind of research question we would typically ask is:
If you have two populations of the same species and certain genes are being expressed in one population but not the other, what are the extrinsic factors that affect that gene expression?
There are always new and upcoming methods in evolutionary biology but all of it relies heavily on phylogeny and understanding how snakes are related to each other, which allows you to then address some of the bigger and broader questions.
How did you end up working with snakes?
My interest in wildlife goes back to when I was very young. When I visited my grandparents, they had a compost pile in their back yard and I would rummage through it to collect centipedes and other creepy crawlies in cans. I would go on walks with my grandparents, flip over rocks and search for any kind of wildlife, go fishing and find newts. Something I remember from when I was about eight years old is bringing home some newts that I put into a kiddie pool in the back yard and I also brought frog eggs with me too. When the eggs were growing into be tadpoles and began moving around inside the eggs, the newts started attacking them and eating them. It was both incredible and horrifying to watch an entire ecosystem play out right before my eyes.
But, out of all the animals I interacted with, snakes have always been my favourite to see and catch!
When I was in grade 5, I told my teacher I wanted to be a herpetologist, but in high school I veered towards more of pursuing the veterinarian route, which led me to do start a degree in animal sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. During my first year I wanted to do a work-study job and responded to an advertisement to help clean and maintain a lab at the University of Massachusetts. When I went for the interview, I got very excited when I saw that they had herps in the lab. Unfortunately, the working hours didn’t align with my classes but one of the graduate students in the lab suggested that I speak to the herpetology professor at the university, Alan Richmond. While I didn’t follow up on that, it was Al that contacted me to meet him and check out his lab. Important lesson I learnt: Don’t let opportunities slide away from you! I got lucky but most often that doesn’t happen. I ended up working for four years in Al’s lab, looking after the herpetofauna collection, and I switched to a biology degree with a focus on evolutionary biology.
I then applied for internships and got one at the Tall Timbers Research Station in Tallahassee, Florida, where I radio-tracked rat snakes and corn snakes for four months (some of the best times of my life!). I then did my master’s for two years at the University of Arkansas, working on Blanding’s Turtles and specifically looking at nest site selection in Nebraska. Turtles are great, but I knew I wanted to work with snakes and systematics, so I ended up working with Frank Burbrink at City University of New York for my PhD. There, I used molecular data to update the taxonomic hypotheses for milksnakes across their ranges in the USA, Central, and South America. I then did my post-doctoral research at the American Museum of Natural History, focusing on the phylogenetics and describing unrecognized diversity of Malagasy snakes. I did a second post doc at the Louisiana State University for 10 of the most productive months of my life before I got my current position.
As a HERPer, how do you think your experiences shape who you are and can set an example for other HERPers?
I have had a largely positive experience. There is a lot more diversity in herpetology now which is very exciting. I’m quite feminine in my personality and people often get surprised with my work interests because there is a stereotype attached to be a certain way if you are a herpetologist. For that reason, it excites me to work with little girls and young women especially and show them that you don’t have to be a certain way to do this work. If you have the dedication and passion, you can work with any animal that you want!
What kind of impact have you had through education and outreach?
If you can show people that snakes are not as bad as they are often portrayed, you are making huge progress! Many people do appreciate them but there are many more that still have a negative impression of them. Most often, the younger the audience, the wider and more meaningful the impact is. Showing people that there are non-venomous and harmless snakes can also have a positive impact.
I also try to change the perception of what a scientist should be like and encourage people to be themselves and excel in your work. I often use snakes as an example in my lectures and change the perception that my students have towards snakes. Being mindful of other people’s ideas and educating them about snake facts goes a long way in making an impact rather than cutting people short when they have a negative attitude towards snakes.
Why do you think Save The Snakes is important in the work that we do?
One of the challenges snakes face is this hatred towards them. Snakes often get persecuted for no reason. An organisation like Save The Snakes, which has a huge focus on education about the importance of snakes, can have a positive impact on people and make them think twice before killing a snake. STS is one of the few organisations that focuses on this type of conservation that is especially needed for snakes. As a committee member, I am happy to promote snakes in a positive light.
What is your favourite thing about snakes?
Despite having no legs and only a tube-like body, snakes can do most things that other animals can do. We have snakes that live in marine environments, snakes that live at the top of trees and others that glide from one tree to another. There are snakes that come out while there is still snow on the ground (despite being ectothermic) and snakes that can either lay eggs or give birth to live young.
I don’t think there are any questions in evolutionary biology that you can’t ask using snakes as a model. There is a huge diversity, all over the world, although sometimes are they hard to find. Plus, I think catching a snake is a huge adrenaline rush and always very exciting!