AAAS Mass Media Fellow Kelly Franklin wants to set the record straight. “There is a lot of misinformation around bats,” she says. “They have often been portrayed as this source of fear, but they are really like any other animal, they are afraid of us and they want their own space.”
Franklin, a Research Assistant in Sewall Lab at Temple University studies the host-pathogen interaction between the little brown bat and Pseudogymnoascus destructans, or Pd, which causes White-nose syndrome (WNS). The disease has killed millions of bats in the United States. From her research, Franklin and her fellow students have found out that Pd has been spreading across the country and this has a lot to do with the bats moving it themselves.
She first became interested in the fight against WNS when she met Dr. Brent Sewall a researcher who taught at Temple University, drawn to work that helps protect an important species.
“I was trying to solve a problem that wasn’t far away, but visible right in my own backyard and that made it all the more meaningful,” she says.
Her research is focused on helping the dwindling populations of hibernating bats to bounce back from the severe losses experienced since 2006 as a result of Pd. Franklin is emphatic that wildlife biologists and researchers need to address the problem so that multiple species will not be on the brink of extinction, and also because bats play an important role in our environment keeping down insect populations. If bats continue to die from WNS, the losses would be felt across the entire global mammal population, she says.
“The reason it is called White-nose syndrome is that you can see this kind of white fuzzy fungal growth on their nose,” Franklin says. “It causes a lot of disruptions to the bat's hibernation, so they are constantly waking up to groom to try and deal with the infection and when they do that, they burn a lot of fat draining their energy. When they emerge from hibernation, they aren’t able to fly so you see a lot of dead bats on the ground outside or at the bottom of caves.”
To identify points of infection in bats, Franklin uses UV transillumination when they are hibernating.
“The most interesting way to see if bats are currently experiencing White-nose syndrome infection is to illuminate their wings with a UV lamp,” she says. “Skin lesions caused by the fungus fluoresce yellow-orange where they are present on the wing.”
One such experiment she conducted was in a cave of an abandoned iron mine. She and her colleagues descend a rocky slope on foot, until they reach the cave floor. Franklin and her fellow researchers are clad in personal protective gear that includes full suits in order not to carry the fungal spores out of caves.
“We wear helmets with red-tinted headlamps so that we can see where we are going and be safe, but disturb the bats as little as possible,” she says.
Besides spending time searching the delicate wings of bats for signs of the Pd fungus, Franklin is pursuing a career that fuses her love of nature, science communication and artistic expression. Once she finishes her studies, the possibilities for her are endless.
“I didn’t want to stay in academia,” she says. “I have always enjoyed writing as another creative outlet.”
This recent summer she inched towards her ambition when she was accepted as a AAAS Mass Media Fellow and assigned to write for the Austin, Texas newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman.
Her path hit a couple of snags which fortunately did not deter her from her goal. Due to travel restrictions because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Franklin remained in Philadelphia for her fellowship.
“I had never been to Texas so that was challenging but otherwise the people I worked with were great, it was a good learning experience and I had a great summer working for them,” she says.
One of the stories she wrote about was on a favorite subject. Invasive species. “The emerald ash borer is a beetle introduced to North America from Asia,” she says. “The pest, smaller than a penny has caused the demise of tens of millions of ash trees in North America.”
But, it was her writing on a series of profiles about Black researchers in academia from the Austin area that earned her the wrath of Internet trolls.
“I started reading comments on Facebook and some of them were just terrible. It was disheartening and it made me think that I was not getting anywhere,” she says, but she adds people also sent emails of support, happy to see the stories Franklin was writing.
The AAAS Mass Media Fellowship not only exposed Franklin to the world of journalism and internet trolls, but also laid bare the hurdles science writers face in a polarized world where fiction sometimes tramps science. One key example? Her concern about climate change, which has become more politicized in an election year.
“I was trying to understand that mentality a little bit or trying to get inside to see what will change people’s minds. It’s kind of fighting an uphill battle if you are writing in an area where some people are like, ‘oh, we don’t believe in any of this,’” she says.