Student Spotlight: Madaline Cochrane

person dressed in winter snow gear in a snowy landscape

In this episode, we hear from Bertha Morton winner Madaline Cochrane about her lifelong fascination with salamanders, how they're adapting to the changing world, and how amphibians tend to be overlooked in wildlife studies.

Story Transcript

WINSOR LOWE: Maddy’s been a great leader and model for the students here at UM – for other grad students, but also at our field site in New Hampshire where she’s, she works at a site where there are a bunch of other researchers from all over the country. So, there are the professors and then there are the grad students and the research assistants. And she’s just, I think, been a great influence out there just keeping the community open and encouraging to new people. It didn’t feel like I was kind of propping up somebody for the award, it felt like an obvious choice where my admiration for her was so clear already. 

ASHBY KINCH: You just heard the voice of Dr. Winsor Lowe, professor of ecology and evolution, talking about his student, Madaline Cochrane, one of the Bertha Morton Award graduate student scholarship winners for 2021-22. Welcome to Confluence, where great ideas flow together, the podcast of the graduate school of the University of Montana. I'm Ashby Kinch, associate dean of the graduate school. This episode of Confluence is part of a series recognizing the achievements of some of our outstanding graduate students. Named for a great Montanan who dedicated her life to public service, the Bertha Morton award was endowed to support graduate education by recognizing the distinctive contributions our graduate students make in research, creative activity, and public service. Maddy’s research focuses on stream salamander ecology and evolution in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest of the White Mountains in New Hampshire. She has an amazing record of service, outreach and scientific productivity, making her a model for women in science both at UM and nationally, and thus an excellent representative of the Bertha Morton legacy. We're proud to share her graduate journey with listeners. Enjoy the float.

KINCH: Thank you for joining us, Maddy.  

MADALINE COCHRANE: Yeah, thanks for having me.  

KINCH: So, first off, congratulations on winning the award. It’s a, it's a nice honor. Tell us about your connection to the Bertha Morton Award and its legacy.  

COCHRANE: So, I was drawn to apply for the Bertha Morton Scholarship because of my love of Montana. And I grew up hearing about Montana. My dad went to the University of Montana. He loved the Missoula area. And so, when I had an opportunity to work in Glacier National Park quite a few years ago doing amphibian surveys I similarly fell in love with this place and the beauty and the people here. And so, fast forward a couple of years and I had an opportunity to apply to grad school here. And I jumped at that opportunity just to both work with Winsor, my advisor, but also just be in this wonderful place that I felt a deep connection to. 

KINCH: Yeah. A lot of people have a story like that here in Montana. Either they hear about or have a family connection and kind of there’s a full circle reason they come back. And so, you mentioned Winsor and that's such a key component to graduate education is the relationship between a student and an advisor. Tell us more about that relationship. 

COCHRANE: Yeah, Winsor's great. I couldn't ask for a better advisor. He's super easy to get along with, a very considerate, kind person. But also, he works mostly with amphibians and specifically salamanders – organisms that I have loved and want to continue working with in my, in my career. So, it was just kind of… 

KINCH: You were into salamanders before you met Win? 

COCHRANE: Yeah, yeah.  

KINCH: Wow. 

COCHRANE: So, any kind of amphibians really – I've always been drawn to even as a kid. So, he has these connections in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in the Appalachian Mountains – so out East. And has a great long-term dataset there. And so, I kind of jumped at the opportunity to be able to work with him and then work out at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest thinking about salamanders and climate change and their ecology. And so, I'm really thankful to have him as a kind of a role model and advisor and just work in this awesome system. 

KINCH: Well, let's follow up on that. And tell me more about that passion and fascination with amphibians because I think that's probably pretty common, you know, because of their kind of weird nature. So, talk a little bit more about that. Where did that come from and how does it inspire your work? 

COCHRANE: Yeah, that's a good question. I don't know. I mean, I just grew up loving being outside, hanging out in nature, catching frogs. I grew up near the Boundary Waters Wilderness in Northern Minnesota. So, being outside has always been important to me in my kind of mental wellness. And so, when I finished my undergrad degree I worked for quite a few years as a field biologist technician just getting experience handling different herps. So herps are amphibians and reptiles and have always loved how amphibians are kind of underrepresented in wildlife studies or conservation work, overlooked perhaps. And so, I've been drawn to them in that way. And they're just cool creatures. They have really interesting ecology. We don't know a lot about them because they are so small and secretive, live in a lot of aquatic habitats. And so – and they're also an indicator species to some extent because they have such permeable skin. They are kind of at least my salamanders move between the terrestrial and aquatic habitat. So, kind of provide ecosystem services to both of those environments.  

KINCH: Yeah. And so that indicator species status is of course also very important to their role in studying climate change. Could you kind of elaborate on that? 

COCHRANE: Sure. Yeah, so my specific research is looking at how climate change – so specifically this increase in hydrologic disturbances so like big floods or big droughts are incidences and magnitude of those events are predicted to increase in the future. And so, I want to know how salamanders are going to respond to the changing climate patterns that we're seeing specifically like their survival, recruitment, kind of population abundance in addition to just their overall ecology. So how, how might their life history or their growth patterns, their movement behaviors change to try to cope with the changing environment. 

KINCH: And what are you finding so far in that? 

COCHRANE: Yeah. So far, I'm finding that they are pretty adaptable, so they are able to adapt their growth rates. For instance, when summers are really dry and they need to metamorph from their larval forms into their adult forums, they are able to move to locations to kind of survive in those really desiccated or challenging environments. Unfortunately, we are finding that there is a decrease in recruitment into adulthood based on increases in these disturbances. So, long-term, there might be some negative impacts for their population.  

KINCH: So, in the pre-adult phase they're more adaptive but when they move into the adult phase because they're done basically with growth, right, there's fewer changes possible, that's where we're seeing their population is not as flexible? 

COCHRANE: Potentially, yeah. We're seeing this kind of vulnerable life stage, this metamorph phase where they lose their gills and their body changes forms, and they become adults that are able to leave the stream is kind of this vulnerable stage we believe that is maybe leaving them vulnerable to big floods or storms. Yeah.  

KINCH: Yeah. So, in past episodes of Confluence, we've had some good conversations with Scott Mills about biological adaptation to climate change and, you know, in the species that he studies. And Montana kind of has this interesting sub-focus on conservation biology. How's that going to influence your future career? Where, are you headed into conservation biology and sort of applied practice? What do you think you'll do next? 

COCHRANE: Yeah, that's a great question. Still figuring out, as I'm sure most grad students are, but…  

KINCH: And not like we're in a pandemic or anything.  

COCHRANE: Yeah. I have a couple more years left, but coming into this program I was pretty excited to work in more of an applied role post-grad school doing conservation biology, working for a nonprofit or even the government. Although being here and teaching and kind of, you know, having Winsor as an advisor definitely is making me potentially rethink staying in academia or pursuing being a professor. So, trying to kind of keep both those paths open at the moment. Being a mentor also seems like a valuable role in the future for me.  

KINCH: And in your field keeping both paths open is kind of plausible. You can kind of pursue both simultaneously, keep working on your research, keep putting out papers, but at the same time, thinking about applied policy issues while still potentially keeping the academic door open. 

COCHRANE: I think so. I hope so. Yeah, I kind of have a couple chapters in my dissertation that are a little more theoretical, perhaps lend themselves more to academia. And then I have a chapter or two about population ecology and survival. And so that would lend themselves a little bit more towards conservation. So, I'm just trying to get as much experience in both of those realms that I can. 

KINCH: Thank you for joining us on Confluence.  

COCHRANE: Yeah, thanks for having me.  

KINCH: If you enjoyed this episode of Confluence, subscribe to our podcast feed at Apple, Google, Spotify, or Stitcher. Make sure to rate and review to support our enterprise of bringing you the voices of graduate education at the University of Montana. See you on the next float!