In Australia as part of the Fulbright Future Scholarship program, Dr Lynea Witczak Oldfather is studying a unique Australian reptile. We spoke with her about her globe-trotting career and asked why one student has had a particular influence on her life.
What is your role and what does your work focus on?
In April of 2022, when I was finishing my PhD at the University of California, Davis, I was awarded a Fulbright Future Scholarship (funded by The Kinghorn Foundation) to conduct postdoctoral research here at Flinders University with Professor Mike Gardner.
I moved to Adelaide in October, excited to study one of the world’s few confirmed monogamous reptiles, the Australian sleepy lizard (Tiliqua rugosa). The evolutionary origins of pair bonding are poorly understood because most research is conducted in laboratory-housed mammals. By studying sleepy lizards, we can ask exciting new questions about the neurobiological mechanisms underlying pair bonding in a wild, non-mammalian species. This work will provide insight into potential shared mechanisms underlying sociality across vertebrate taxa and aims to bring us closer to understanding the evolutionary origins of pair bonds.
An equally important component of my Fulbright is teaching students behavioral neuroendocrinology methods, like enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays and pharmacological manipulations. I also hope to engage with students whose identities are underrepresented in the sciences, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, to learn from them, understand their experiences, and identify ways to support their further interest in the sciences.
Can you briefly describe the journey that took you to this point in your career?
I think I’ve always been a scientist at heart. As a child growing up in the United States, I bred bearded dragons and recorded their social interactions in a journal.
As an undergraduate at Davidson College, I worked in a herpetology lab, and fell in love with every part of the research process. While studying wildlife ecology in Kenya, I became fascinated by species that exhibited pair bonding, like jackals and dik-diks, and wanted to know more about the mechanisms driving selective social bonds.
After graduating, I worked in two different labs, studying social behavior in frogs and rhesus macaques. I loved research, but I also enjoyed teaching, so I spent a year in China teaching English. While I loved developing curricula and working with students, I missed conducting research and knew I needed to pursue a path that would allow me to do both.
I began my PhD program at the University of California, Davis in 2015 studying the neurobiology of monogamy in titi monkeys (Plecturocebus cupreus). My graduate experience confirmed that I want to spend the rest of my career investigating the mechanisms driving monogamy, but I missed working with reptiles.
In 2020, I learned there are pair bonding lizards in Australia: this was the perfect next step for me! I reached out to Professor Mike Gardner and we agreed that my expertise would enable me to establish a new area of study, neuroendocrinology, within his lab. In addition to gaining invaluable research experiences and connections, the Fulbright allows me to immerse myself in a new culture and learn how communities and universities ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are celebrated and supported. I am eager to learn how to be more inclusive of students who have historically been excluded from academia due to systemic barriers.
What is something you love most about your work?
I really love seeing individual variation in personality and behavior in the animals I study. Some can be quite bold, while others are timid. Did you know that some sleepy lizards are deemed “lovers”, spending lots of time in close physical proximity to their partner, while others are “fighters”, dedicating time to warding off potential intruders?
I love discussing individual variation in animals with students because it feels very relatable, given how unique we know every person is. This variability in animal behavior opens up exciting opportunities for asking new questions about how personality and social environments affect behavior and physiology.
What is something you would like people to know about your role?
I am here to learn just as much as I am here to teach others. Some of my favorite parts of my day are the lunches and coffee chats I get to have with folks here at Flinders. I’ve learned so much about what it is like to be a student, postdoc and professor in Australia, and it has been fun to share similarities and differences between academic spaces in Australia and the US.
If you see me around, please stop and say hi. I’m always excited to talk and exchange experiences and ideas! And I love teaching, so if anyone is curious about the research I’m doing or the techniques I use, I’d be thrilled to chat.
What is something you are most proud of?
One of the most rewarding aspects of my chosen career path is serving as a mentor for students. One experience that I am proud of is my mentoring relationship with a former student. I met this student while teaching the laboratory section of Physiological Psychology at the University of California, Davis. At first, she was unsure of her ability to succeed, but every week I encouraged her to ask questions and helped her realize she understood the material. She loved the course so much that she joined my PhD mentor’s lab as a research assistant. I trained her on data collection and she quickly became the lead intern for one of our studies. Family obligations forced her to leave our lab, but we continued to talk regularly.
That is when I learned how vital it is to connect with students on a personal level. This student has been open about her experiences as a first-generation woman of color who is the primary caretaker of a family member. She has shared how my support gave her the confidence to pursue her ambitions of becoming a doctor. She also shared the challenges she has faced and identified things that would have helped her succeed sooner.
Now, in every class, I teach students how to study and understand concepts, create clear rubrics with example responses, genuinely encourage students to ask questions, include representations of many identities in my materials, and connect students with resources that support undergraduates. It has been a privilege and an honor to see this student grow and succeed, and our relationship has truly made me a better teacher and mentor. I know she is going to be an incredible doctor and am so excited to see what the future holds for her!
What does a normal day look like for you?
Every day is different for me, which is something I really love about this position. Because I am in a new lab working with a new species, I learn something new every day.
At the start of my Fulbright, I was going to the field regularly to learn how to work with and collect data on sleepy lizards. Our field site is about three hours away, so it’s a long day of driving, but that’s when I have had some of my best conversations with current and prospective lab members! To find the sleepy lizards, we drive on the roads within our field site, keeping an eye out for lizards crossing the road to bask or forage. It’s been exciting to learn about the data that has been collected on these lizards at this field site since 1982, and the sleepy lizards are even cuter than I had imagined they’d be!
Now, I’ll be focusing more on my work in the lab, validating the use of enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays to measure hormones in sleepy lizard blood and urine samples. I’ll also be validating methods for pharmacological manipulations that we hope to use next field season. My goal is to train others in Professor Gardner’s lab to use these techniques for their own projects. If anyone is interested in learning more about opportunities in the lab, please reach out!
How do you like to relax or spend your spare time?
I’ve been trying to get out and explore as much of South Australia as I can since moving here. I love hiking through the many reserves and seeing the wildlife! There’s also always something going on, so it’s been easy to get out and try something new every weekend.
I’ve been keeping up with friends back in the US by watching shows together over Zoom (Bachelor in Paradise is a group favorite). A few of us have also been playing Dungeons and Dragons over Zoom, which has been tons of fun. I played underwater hockey in the US and just got my gear here, so I’m hoping to start playing here in Adelaide as well (if you haven’t heard of it, look it up, it’s real and is as wild as it sounds).