For bat researcher, every scream counts

An MU professor studies the sounds of his furry flying friends.
Sunday, August 10, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:26 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Within the warren of offices that make up this laboratory is a room whose walls are covered in thick, dimpled padding. The impression is of a tiny recording studio, but no rock star with a wailing guitar has played here.

Rather, the soundproofing was chosen because its contours are just right to absorb screams.

Dominating the room is a miniature restraining device, from which protrudes a mass of wires. These connect to tiny electrodes not much wider than a human hair. Nearby is an oscilloscope, waiting like a court stenographer to record the changes in voltage and current detected by the electrodes — once they are nestled deep in the brain.

In the center of the room, beaming like a father on graduation day, stands MU biology professor Philip Jen.

A few minutes with Jen dispel any suspicions that the University of Missouri might be providing money and space to a modern-day Dr. Frankenstein. He has an air of authority, of one who is used to those around him hanging on his words and scribbling into a notebook. Despite the startling padded room, colleagues say Jen, 58, has not cackled once in his 27 years at MU nor raved about creating monsters.

Still, Jen has an affinity for at least one creature of the night, for which this not-so-secret chamber was designed and built.

“Bats,” he says. “It is for the bats.”

Jen was born in 1944 in China’s Hunan Province. Soon after World War II, the government transferred his father to Taiwan, where he managed a sugar plantation that had been abandoned by the retreating Japanese. Jen’s long-standing interest in bats started there, in boyhood. He recalls watching at dusk as bats near his home swept overhead, snaring insects and moving on to the next kill in a microsecond.

“They would make no sound, but would scoop up insects at an incredible rate,” he says. “Quite fascinating.”

In 1967, after graduating from a university in Taiwan and teaching high school for a while, Jen moved to the United States to pursue a doctoral degree. He settled on Washington University in St. Louis.

He soon began working with an eminent bat biologist, a Japanese man named Nobuo Suga. Jen describes the time as “Marine-style training.” A 12-hour day was the norm, and it was not unusual for him to come into the lab at 8 a.m. and stay until 1 a.m. the next morning.

In 1975, Jen came to MU after impressing the faculty with a guest lecture. In the years since, he has become something of an institution on the Columbia campus.

Crying out for study

Xiaoming Zhou emerges from the hot, dark recesses of the attic of Benton Elementary School in Columbia armed with a large flashlight and a butterfly net. Sweat pours from his face. Pink insulation clings to his dirty clothes. Thick leather gloves protect his hands.

He surveys the rafters as he walks, searching for another victim.

“Over here,” shouts his partner in abduction, doctoral student Chung Hsin Wu, from a few feet away.

Like Zhou, Wu is filthy — an hour spent in the stifling attic has taken its toll. Zhou walks over, and they stare at a spot above them. Then Zhou swings his net into the shadows. Wu makes a grab. There are quick words in Chinese, then a series of high-pitched squeals.

“We got one,” Wu says.

He opens a loudly complaining pillowcase. Tiny black eyes blink up at the glare of a flashlight.

Zhou and Wu were sent to Benton Elementary, a favorite hunting ground, by Jen. Their mission: Return with 20 to 30 big brown bats, one of the most common of the eight bat species in Missouri.

They seem to enjoy their kidnapping assignment, but perhaps not quite as much as their boss does. Rumor has it that once Jen got so carried away chasing a bat around a school attic that he took a wrong step and fell halfway through the ceiling.

It isthe bats that do all the screaming in Jen’s chamber — but not in pain or fear . Rather, Jen says, the screams are one component of a highly developed and adapted sense of hearing, which the bats use to navigate their way through whatever experiment he has devised.

This cry-and-echo system is called echolocation, and the basics are fairly simple. At dusk, a bat flies out of a cave or a shed or wherever it dwells, often accompanied by hundreds or thousands of its buddies, in search of dinner. In Missouri, that might be mosquitoes or moths.

Then the bat screams. The sound wave generated by the scream travels through the air until it hits something, then it bounces back at a fraction of its original strength. The bat’s brain measures the interval and is able to create a three-dimensional map of the object. The bat screams again and again as it zeroes in on its prey.

A determined bat can catch as many as a dozen insects in a single second.

The padded room where Jen conducts his research flights has been the site of many experiments over the years. In its confines, Jen discovered that bats detect moving objects better than stationary ones and that the auditory systems of young bats are amazingly plastic — they can rapidly compensate and continue to navigate, for example, if one ear is plugged.

His most recent study centers on how bats can modulate and filter unwanted signals. He calls this the “cocktail party phenomenon.” Just as humans are able to filter unwanted sound and focus on one speaker in a crowded noisy room, so are bats when surrounded by other screaming bats.

A talent for teaching

Medical doctors who see real-world applications for his work have praised Jen’s research. Studying how bats use sound may help doctors better understand how humans use sound and could lead to breakthroughs in treating hearing loss and deafness.

MU biology professor and long-time friend Joel Maruniak says Jen excels at both research and teaching. He has published 117 papers, not including abstracts — a feat Maruniak calls “truly exceptional.” Yet, Maruniak says, Jen also has an amazing rapport with students.

“You can be a Nobel Prize winner, but if you can’t communicate to your students that you care about them, they won’t respond,” Maruniak says.

Zhou, the bat abductor, came to study with Jen at the urging of an undergraduate advisor in China. In two years, Zhou will likely return home to start his own laboratory. He says Jen has been there for him, academically and personally, from the start.

Maruniak, who came to MU in 1983, has witnessed this personal care for 20 years. He says Jen is something of a father figure to his students, many of whom come from Taiwan and China and need help adjusting to American life. Maruniak says Jen even takes them fishing for crappy and bluegill in his private pond and, if they are in need, loans them money.

Jen has succeeded as both a researcher and a teacher. He has become a U.S. citizen and prospers here, but he retains deep ties to his homeland. He and his wife have donated money to help build an elementary school, to provide a scholarship fund for children and to help build a library. He has created a pipeline for graduate and doctoral students from China to MU.

But what about those bats, which Jen ties down and pokes in the head with a needle?

Although there is a little discomfort, the bats Jen uses for research are released with a belly full of mealworms — “like tasty little hamburgers for bats,” he says.

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