Fellows Feature: Katie Solari

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Katie Solari is a CEHG predoctoral fellow in the lab of Elizabeth Hadly. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley (BA, Integrative Biology). Katie’s research investigates the mechanisms underlying high-altitude hypoxia tolerance, focusing on Asian pika species (small mammals related to rabbits, who serve as the inspiration for pikachu). 

Can you tell us a bit about yourself, personally and professionally?

I grew up less than 10 miles from Stanford campus, in Redwood City. I went to Berkeley for my undergrad, but I didn’t go straight into graduate school. I spent one year working for AmeriCorps NCCC, where I mainly did construction in New Orleans, rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina – this was one of the best experiences of my life. I also taught students with learning differences at a Bay Area high school for two years, and really enjoyed that teaching experience.

Why did you become a scientist? Did you want to be a scientist as a child?

As a kid I was obsessed with animals, every story I wrote or picture I drew was of one of my pets (we had a dog, cat, and a tortoise). My Dad is a high school biology teacher, so growing up we always had a microscope at home that I loved to play with and look at microorganisms in pond water or insects from the backyard.

After undergrad, I was given the opportunity to travel to Tanzania for a summer to teach English and Biology. While I was there, I was able to go to Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Conservation area for three days. The wildlife was unlike anything I had ever imagined. Witnessing the beauty of these animals in their natural habitat and thinking about all of the Anthropogenic pressures threatening their existence, and all that we still have to learn from them, sealed the deal for me. I knew I wanted to do research to learn more about the wildlife around us and to hopefully play a role in its maintenance.

Can you tell us about your current research and why your research is important?

Specifically, my dissertation work has been focused on investigating the mechanisms underlying high-altitude hypoxia-tolerance in pikas (small mammals related to rabbits). However, at the heart of this work is a desire to better understand how our world will change with continued climate change and how we might be able to mitigate these impacts in some way.

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Ochotona roylei in Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh, India. 2013 photo courtesy of Katie Solari.

There are about 30 pika species, two are found in North American and the others are all in Asia. Pikas are extremely heat-intolerant and, as such, are generally isolated in cool habitats at high elevations or high latitudes. In response to climate change, pikas in parts of the US and the Himalayas have been moving to higher elevations to escape the heat. Due to their thermal sensitivity and their relatively rapid range retraction, pikas have become an icon of climate change.

By assessing what mechanism pikas have at their disposal to deal with high-elevation hypoxia, I hope that we will be able to better assess which species and populations will be capable of living in the high elevation refugia that they are being forced into. Our findings so far indicate that high elevation pika species (such as those living in the Himalayas) have genetic adaptions to help them deal with hypoxic stress that are not present in lower elevation species. These findings suggest an elevational specialization of pika species, indicating that it may be hard for species to shift elevational ranges quickly in response to climate change. However, a study I conducted on a single population of pikas in the Indian Himalayas, along an elevation gradient (3600-5000m), indicates that plasticity in gene expression may also play a role in allowing pikas to shift elevations. This suggests that even though there are genetic adaptations playing a role in hypoxia-tolerance at the species level, plasticity in gene expression may also facilitate range movement at a finer scale.

Pikas are extremely important to their ecosystems, acting as both ecosystem engineers and keystone species. I hope that the more we learn about their ability to respond to climate change, the more likely it will be that we will be able to preserve them, and the services they provide their ecosystems, into the future.

Were there people (or one person) in particular to whom you would attribute your professional success? What is it like working with your current lab advisor and her lab?

Liz has been an amazing mentor to me over the past five years. She has helped me mature as a scientist, critical thinker, and collaborator. More than anything, she has shown amazing confidence in me and has given me the room to try to rise to every new challenge. Something I’m particularly grateful for is the incredible example Liz has set for how to take research out of academia and into the real world, in order to get closer to affecting real change. I believe that the current state of the world demands that researchers cross over into policy and action, and Liz has done an incredible job at exemplifying how to do that.

I have also had the privilege to work extensively with Dr. Uma Ramakrishnan, from the National Center for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, both here and in her lab in India. Uma has also set a great example for how to work toward merging science and policy so that what we learn can be translated into real world changes on a timescale that will keep pace with the rapidly progressing challenges that our world is facing. The way that both Liz and Uma think about environmental issues and the role that scientists can play in solving them have greatly impacted me and what I aspire to do after my PhD.

Courtney Wilson also had a pivotal impact on my decision to go to grad school to begin with. Courtney and I, best friends since preschool, both had similar aspirations after undergrad to work towards environmental betterment. After leaving undergrad, I didn’t know anyone in the academic world – Courtney was it. She was working at a lab in Cornell and was my vital connection to academia. She helped me get access to the scientific literature for my applications, introduced me to graduate students doing conservation research, and, more than anything, was having all of the same concerns about biting off grad school and was the exact sounding board that I needed to decide that grad school was the right choice for me. When I started my PhD at Stanford, Courtney started her Master’s at the School of Natural Resource and the Environment at the University of Michigan and went on to begin her PhD there. The world was robbed of what Courtney had to offer when she tragically passed away in the first month of her PhD program, but her contagious drive and passion is still helping me, along with many others, work towards a shared goal of environmental improvement.

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Katie Solari conducting fieldwork in Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh, India. 2013 photo courtesy of Ania Wrona. 

What are your future plans? Where do you see yourself professionally in the next 5 or 10 years? 

I mainly just want to do something that will move us, however little, towards responding to the challenges of our time in an effective way. I’m open to any opportunity to work towards preserving the organisms and ecosystems that we have and/or mitigating climate change and its impacts.

What advice would you offer to other grad students or postdocs who are considering pursuing a similar educational and career path as you?

Be prepared to experience 10 times as many failures as successes. Research always feels like an uphill battle. You can’t let rejections or failures get you down. You need to keep moving forward and see everything as a learning experience.

Can you speak a bit to the role you see CEHG playing on Stanford campus?

CEHG exemplifies the best parts of Stanford in that it facilitates innovative thinking in order to move science into new and exciting directions. CEHG funding opportunities allow students to use their imagination and take risks – a CEHG trainee research grant allowed me to initiate collaboration with the Minnesota Zoo in order to work with the only captive population of pikas in the world (held there).

Through the outreach group, CEHG also makes it a priority to reach out to the local community to share the love of science with local middle school and high school students. The types of opportunities that CEHG offers its students, as well as students in the local community, is what makes Stanford a place that fosters novel research and a general love for science.

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