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Prof Susana Clusella-Trullas examines cold-blooded animals’ response to climate change
Author: Corporate Communication & Marketing / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie & Bemarking
Published: 26/09/2023

Prof Susana Clusella-Trullas from the Department of Botany and Zoology in the Faculty of Science delivered her inaugural lecture on 19 September 2023. The title of her lecture was “Should I stay or should I go? Examining responses of cold-blooded animals to climate change".

Clusella-Trullas, who is also the Group Leader of the CL•I•M•E lab (Climate and Invasions: Mechanisms in Ectotherms), spoke to the Corporate Communication and Marketing Division about the ways in which her research examines the response of reptiles, amphibians, and insects to climate change so that the assessment of their vulnerability to it can be improved.

Tell us more about your research and why you became interested in this specific field.

My research examines how ectothermic animals, such as reptiles, amphibians and insects, cope with climatic changes, including variability in temperature and relative humidity. My research group focuses on measuring how these organisms function in their habitats. For example, we can measure and predict how much energy they need to maintain basic functions, to reproduce and persist in a changing environment. We can use our understanding of how these animals respond to temperature variability to improve assessments of their vulnerability to climate change.

I have loved nature and wildlife since I was a small child. My family travelled a lot and I dreamed of being a veterinarian and saving animals all over the world! As I grew up, I realised that I was more interested in the understanding of how animals function in their natural environments and how they interact with each other. I was also very passionate about maths and analysing data. Collecting rigorous data and making robust interpretations from these data are very powerful ways to increase our understanding of how biological systems work and how we can sustain wild animal populations into the future. A career in science seemed a better fit for these goals and the impact of our science has been more far-reaching than I ever anticipated.

How would you describe the relevance of your work?

My research has encompassed projects in a wide variety of systems and organisms, including marine and terrestrial species, and using many different approaches, from small case studies to analyses of patterns of animal response at large scales. The common thread in this research has been to study the most adequate system to answer both fundamental and applied questions of local and global relevance.

For example, will plasticity or evolutionary adaptation be more likely to rescue populations that are vulnerable to climate warming? How can we better define the sensitivity of animals to temperature change? Can we generalise across taxonomic groups or regions when examining individual responses to temperature variability? And how do different drivers of change, such as climate change and biological invasions, interact and affect animal communities?

By tackling these questions from multiple angles, we strive to enhance our power to predict species' sensitivity and resilience to global change. Our research has measurable applications for managers and policymakers in improving assessments of species' vulnerability to climate change.

You have spent many years in the challenging environment of higher education. What keeps you going when things get tough?

Things get tough at times in academia, but I always try to put them into perspective. In fact, there are so many other careers that in my opinion are tougher, perhaps in different ways. My strategy has always been to focus on the positives and live a life that is well balanced between family time, fun and work. A career in science requires multi-tasking (research, teaching, administration, seeking funding, etc.), good time management skills and a lot of dedication and commitment to keep pace with the latest research and teaching methods.

It is also a very competitive sphere, and it does not always suit all personalities. But it is also a very rewarding career path. I feel proud of the students who have come through my lab and have embraced the complexity associated with experimental designs, gathering key skills that have allowed them to grow, think critically and build resilience towards challenges that have been given to them. This has empowered many students and I hope that it will continue to do so as they face an increasingly challenging employment market.

What do you like most about your work?

My favourite thing about academic work is the freedom we have to tackle research questions that we are interested in, or that we can highlight as priorities as a collective group to advance our field. I also really enjoy the opportunities that academic jobs offer such as attending conferences and workshops and networking with innovative people in my broader research field, which allow important questions to be discussed with experts from all over the world. The most pressing issues threatening biodiversity and, therefore, human welfare need careful and well-thought-out assessments and guidelines to devise the best strategies to tackle them.

Through education and research, we have the power to make a difference in terms of forming well-rounded future scholars and guide decisions in conservation, policy, and government, which can permeate into the protection of biodiversity and the maintenance of human well-being globally. One large priority is for our institutions and governments to continue supporting our science initiatives so that these objectives can be realised.

What is your message to young girls who aspire to a career in science?

My message to young girls is to not be deterred by the perceived challenges associated with science. Everyone has different skills, and the focus should be on strategically using your talents while improving the skills that require attention, one step at a time. Science is fun and rewarding, and investing time and effort to learn all these skills does not automatically mean that you must pursue an academic career trajectory. Many of my postgraduate students have pursued future employment in the private sector (e.g. C4 EcoSolutions, BerryWorld, AltGen, and Oro Agri SA), while others have enjoyed staying in academia and pursuing teaching and/or research (e.g. South African National Biodiversity Institute, postgraduate/postdoctoral studies).

For women, a career in science can be daunting at times when it means dedicating long periods to study or staying abreast of advances in the field, often meaning postponing or having less time for kids and family. However, times are changing, and most institutions and organisations are increasingly accommodating childcare for women scientists. If that is not the case, we should work together to make it happen!

Tell us something exciting about yourself that people would not expect.

I have an anecdote instead. When I was a teenager, I was questioned about my nationality at an airport border control because my accent was not Spanish despite having a Spanish passport. I had to explain that I grew up speaking French (and Catalan) with my family and did not learn the formal Castellan. This was a very early warning of how people perceive others without accounting for the diversity of lifestyles and backgrounds and often rely on a piece of paper or limited information to make assumptions. I have tried to avoid this and strive to embrace diversity in all its forms and colours. I also care deeply about the environment and cycle to work most days. I am hoping my attitude will at least influence my kids!

How do you spend your free time?

I love the outdoors, spending time with my family in nature to reconnect and take perspective on the good things. Trail running and rock climbing are my favourite pastimes and allow me to switch off from work and recharge my batteries.