Interview with Gary McCracken, Bat Expert

by STEM Scouts

Gary McCracken has a very cool job. He’s a Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Tennessee and an expert on bat behavior and genetics. We had the pleasure of talking with him about his job, his interest in STEM, and how he got to where he is today.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Currently, I teach, do research and serve the community. I was previously head of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Tennessee, but I’ve stepped down from that role and am now a senior professor and researcher.

My doctoral work was a combination of ecology, field research, animal behaviors and genetics. I was interested in social systems and using genetics to study animals. My work focused on snails, but I was offered a job to apply these genetic studies to bats in the tropics, specifically in Trinidad. My sole job was to do research—marking and radio tracking bats, looking at their genes (who was related to whom, who was mating with whom). I spent several years in that position before taking another job working with snails. Later, I took this position as professor and researcher, and now I work primarily with bats.

At this level of research, I’m supposed to be interested in the questions; so my job is to ask lots of questions about the things I’m studying and to find the answers.

How did your early interest in STEM shape your professional and personal interests as an adult?

I’ve always been interested in how things worked. My father was into cars, and being around him made me fearless about taking things apart and putting them back together. When I was younger, I had a chemistry set and an erector set; I was encouraged to do things like that. I built a telegraph between my house and my neighbor’s house. I read a lot and had a lot of interest in history and biographies.

As a child, I never thought I was going to do what I do now. My current work came through following opportunities. Originally, when I went to college, I thought I was going to be an engineer. I was always good at math; I was never afraid of any of that stuff. I came from a working-class family, so I felt like I needed to do something practical (engineer, physician). Then, when I started taking biology courses, I realized how much I loved nature, so I changed my major to biology.

When I graduated from college, I applied to various master’s and doctoral programs but then decided to take a year off to travel and work. Later, I decided to pursue biology in graduate school. I still didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do except to be physically active and outside. I was just following opportunities, and they led me here.

Did you have any people, experiences or resources in your younger years that significantly helped shape your future in this career?

I was encouraged by both of my parents. Like I said earlier, my dad was into mechanical stuff. We spent a lot of time cruising junkyards and putting cars together. Although he passed away in my early years, my mother always pushed me. She made sure I was going to get a good education and pushed me to go as far as I could.

Also, my best friend growing up was a MacGyver-type character. As 12-year-olds, we got into all kinds of stuff, like making gunpowder.

Then, when I was in school at Notre Dame, I had two professors and a post-doctorate researcher who encouraged me to pursue biology.

Why is your research on bats is so important?

Some of the bat caves have millions of bats, so my immediate thoughts are, “Where is the food for these bats? How can so many animals be in one spot? Where are all those insects?”

These bats have a large impact on agricultural pests. The bats are actually tracking the insects. The insects’ locations are determined by agricultural practices and weather. (In my research, I collaborate with meteorologists and other professionals outside my area of expertise.) So, as the bats eat these agricultural pests, they’re helping the crops that feed people. Our research has shown us just how important these bats are to our ecological system, which has motivated us to make sure we don’t do anything that hurts the conservation of these bats.

What are some of your favorite parts of your job?

I enjoy traveling—going to places that people don’t normally go to and discovering things people haven’t known. I like solving problems and discussing ideas with friends and colleagues. I very much like teaching and constantly being around young people and new ideas.

What piece of advice would you give to young adults looking to develop a career in STEM?

Keep your options open. Unless you are very certain, don’t be so quick to rush into any one area of study. You have more time than you think you have; you need to be very certain that what you do will be doing something you really enjoy.

Don’t be motivated to make money. If you do something that excites you, you will be fine.

If you could go back and do it all over again, what would you do differently?

I would trust my abilities more at the start. And I wouldn’t have been so anxious about what I thought I needed to do; I would have just followed my interests.

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