Emily Thompson

Thompson said she makes the two-day drive up to Manitoba each summer to collect data on the snakes.

Tens of thousands of black and yellow serpents slither aimlessly throughout a shallow, rocky pit. Senior biology major Emily Thompson stands in the craggy trench, and the snakes slide over her boots. She reaches down and picks up an armful of about a dozen.

As part of her honors capstone thesis, Thompson travels to Manitoba, Canada, each May to study the mating habits of red-sided garter snakes and collect physical samples to bring back to JMU’a lab.

“It was just awe-inspiring,” Thompson said. “[The leaders] give you a couple minutes to just, like, sit and watch because it’s so surreal to finally see the system in real life and just watch that carpet of snakes move … It felt like a genuine scientific moment, even before I was doing the research.”

Rocky Parker, an assistant professor of biology, leads Thompson’s lab group, which conducts research focused on pheromones — sex hormones — and how the snakes communicate their mating rituals through chemical signals. However, many students branch out and concentrate their projects according to their own interests. 

Thompson’s research zeroes in on microbial ecology, an area she said is understudied. She delves into how microorganisms on the bodies of the snakes may help them in the mating process.

Morgan Steffen, an associate professor of biology, has worked with Thompson for three years in the lab at JMU. Steffen, a microbiologist, and Parker, a chemical ecologist, combined their expertise to guide Thompson’s research. Steffen aids Thompson in her understanding of the snakes’ microbes. 

Steffen said Thompson’s interdisciplinary project aims to understand how the two “worlds” of the animal — one that can be seen with the eyes, and the microbes that can’t be seen — intertwine and interact together.

“Her project is really cool,” Steffen said. “She was able to work with [Parker] to design some really cool experiments, and then she and I have been working together to do her data analysis.”

Although students work in what they call the “Parker lab” year-round, they drive up to Manitoba each May. The snakes’ mating season is in the spring, but Thompson said that because of school, they aren’t able to do field research until the spring semester ends. Immediately after exams, the group makes the two-day trip to Manitoba — located directly north of North Dakota. Thompson said Manitoba is the home of the “largest meeting aggregations of reptiles in the world.”

Manitoba is flat and treeless. Thompson said she could “stare out into the horizon and see for miles.” Although some grass surrounds the research site, the snake den is in a limestone quarry — a rocky pit with almost no vegetation.

Once they arrive, Thompson and approximately 10 other researchers stay in a cabin about 20 minutes from the research site. The cabin, which they live in for the duration of the 10-day research trip, has no shower. There’s only a living room and a small kitchen on the first floor, and the upstairs is one large room where everyone sleeps. Thompson said it felt strange to sleep next to people whose research she’d read and respected and hear them snoring.

“It’s like camping in one big room,” Thompson said. “You really only have, like, a curtain between you and the next bed … It really humanizes them.”

Thompson said that every day, the group gets up around seven or eight in the morning and heads to the den site where the snakes come out of hibernation and mate. There, they do data collection and behavioral trials with the snakes.

The research team takes some snakes back to the lab in the Bioscience Building at JMU to conduct further testing, but for Thompson’s project, she swabs the snakes to collect microbes. She rolls the swab over the snake’s body, then places it in a cooler that she later takes back to the lab.

Thompson helped her friend and colleague, Holly Rucker (’19), collect samples for her research. Rucker’s research focused on whether the enzyme aromatase in female snakes made them more or less attractive to males. After bringing female snakes back to the den from the JMU lab where their enzyme levels were altered, they tested how many males would try to mate with the females. They found that inhibiting the females’ aromatase enzymes made them less attractive. 

Rucker said Thompson was an asset in the field and “has all the makings of a great scientist.”

“She definitely loves science and [is] very curious about everything, so she has a lot of questions,” Rucker said. “That’s the best thing a scientist can do, is ask lots of questions … That’s really how you figure out if you understand something and how you can poke at gaps of knowledge and what everyone else knows, too.”

Parker, who leads the trips and works with Thompson as an adviser, said she’s been advanced since day one. He recalled a moment from her first time at the den in 2018. Thompson, then a freshman, was making informed decisions about the structure of her experiment and which statistical tests to use — something biologists don’t typically excel at until graduate school. 

“It showed me how … she’s not collecting data just looking at numbers,” Parker said. “She’s actually been thinking about what the numbers mean, and that, to me, is a sign of a true researcher.”

Contact Charlotte Matherly at mathercg@dukes.jmu.edu. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.