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Student Profile: Elana Varner

November 06, 2019
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Master's of Pest Management student in the Faculty of Science

Elana Varner is SFU's 2019 3MT winner, she came in second place in the regionals, and is also competing in the national competition for her research, "Sex appeal of mouse pee safeguards wildlife".

As a competitior in the national competition, Elana has recorded a video that will be judged and voted on by a panel of esteemed judges. However, you can also vote for Elana to win in the People's Choice category. Voting is open from Friday, May 10 until Sunday, May 26, 2019. More information can be found on the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS) website.

ABOUT ELANA

I am a budding scientist keen to create concrete, actionable solutions to conservation problems. The road to this point was meandering, but every experience has been valuable in shaping my scientific approach. I adopted my first pair of pet rats out of a fascination with social animals and because my lease forbid dogs. Now, over a decade and a dozen pet rats later, my research aims to dissect their behavior! I have worked with countless other species from squirrel monkeys and rhesus macaques to alpacas, jumping spiders, and bison. Each species has provided valuable insights into animal behavior. 

In my free time, I enjoy mountain biking, wrangling Oliver (our Irish terrier), and teaching Oliver that rats are friends!

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO COME TO SFU?

The rarity of this particular rodent research in conjunction with SFU's aim to 'engage the world' made the choice of SFU an easy one even as an international student. 

TELL US ABOUT YOUR RESEARCH AND/OR PROGRAM.

Despite the 'lab rat' being a quintessential tool facilitating research, we actually know very little about how they exist in the wild. Rodents are commensal with humans ("which literally means "to eat at the same table" (thanks, Latin!)); so their 'wilderness' isn't wild at all, it's human-centric. As a result, our fates are entangled; they impact our food, our homes, and our health. Therefore, how we manage them is paramount to our success in mitigating these risks. Unfortunately, current management turns to rat poison as a crutch with 90% of pest management professionals using it.

But this crutch is broken. Rats and mice have adapted behaviorally; they now avoid new foods in their environment, meaning they rarely eat the rat poison. Despite likely being ineffective, rat poison blankets our cities, towns, and agricultural settings where other small mammals readily eat it. Consequently, 70% of mammals across California test positive for them, resulting in lethal and sub-lethal internal hemorrhaging. Rather than mitigating risk, current rodent management is ineffective and detrimental to wildlife. 

My research aims to make rodent management both more effective and eco-friendly. Rodents communicate through smell via pheromones in their urine. This is particularly important for attracting mates - males are drawn like magnets to female scent. By identifying the compounds responsible for this magnet-like attraction, we can hijack their communication system and simulate the presence of a mate. By tricking the rodents into a mechanical-kill trap, we hope to obfuscate the use of poison. In this way, we will kill only the target rodent pest rather than weaken the entire ecosystem.  

WHAT ARE YOU PARTICULARLY ENJOYING ABOUT YOUR STUDIES/RESEARCH AT SFU?

I hugely appreciate that our lab engenders solid research by respecting good ideas, regardless of their source. Our lab meetings often consist of brainstorming sparked by undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty alike. To me, this deliberate abandonment of hierarchy has fostered an atmosphere of teamwork and consistently allows the best ideas to prevail. 

Between undergraduate and graduate school, I took some time to explore my interests and find a laboratory that would be the best fit. Doing both of these has been vital. Often students jump into a lab without meeting the supervisor or lab members, but these are the people that will shape your research experience for several years. Finding a good fit is imperative. 

HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR PROGRAM TO SOMEONE STILL SEARCHING FOR A PROGRAM?

The Master of Pest Management program provides a uniquely opportunity in research. Combining applied research and industrial sponsors means that if our research discovers a tangible solution, sponsors will help translate that into available technology by effectively taking it to market. Furthermore, the MPM courses provide a view into the history of pest management that helps inform and advise how to best manage things going forward. 

DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR PROSPECTIVE GRADUATE STUDENTS?

Research is taxing, so finding a topic that you are passionate about and an environment that engenders that passion will allow you to plow through hard times. 

For women in STEM: Be confident and make your voice heard. Find female role models and inspirations. The history books have left them out but when you look, you'll see brilliant women are everywhere. Inspirational women for me include Dr. Marian Diamond, a founder of modern neuroscience, my own mom, Valerie Varner, an amazing human being and HIV researcher, and our own lab manager and chemistry wizard, Regine Gries

Contact Elana: evarner@sfu.ca