Dr. Hannah Ruth Windley
A Fascinating Scientific and Cultural Quest Led by a Mouse
JSPS Postdoctoral Fellow, Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute, 2017-2019
Ph.D. (Ecology), Australian National University, Australia, 2015
Tutor and Demonstrator, Australian National University, Australia, 2010-2015
Coming to Japan from Australia, Dr. Hannah Ruth Windley is conducting research under a JSPS Postdoctoral Fellowship with her host Dr. Takuya Shimada at the Tohoku Research Center of the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute. We asked Dr. Windley to tell us about her research activities and life in Japan.
Q: What are you currently working on under your JSPS fellowship?
My current research investigates the relationship between Japanese literature and one of the most prominent American poets of the twentieth century, Ezra Pound. Because of Pound’s centrality in the Anglophone poetic canon, his interest in haiku, a short form of Japanese poetry, has been discussed in great detail. What have not yet been examined, however, are the roots of this interest in fundamental changes to this poetic form that occurred in Meiji-era Japan (1868-1912), and how that shaped his understanding of haiku. My research also focuses on the influence on Pound of Noh a major form of classical Japanese theatre, which had a far deeper and longer-lasting impact on his poetry than haiku; and on Pound’s own impact on Japanese poetry.
Q: How did you get interested in your research subject?
I became interested in animal nutrition and ecology as an undergraduate student at Australian National University. I really enjoy working with animals and the combination of lab work and field work keeps it interesting. In Australia, I studied the common brushtail possum, an adorable native marsupial with a fascinating ability to select eucalyptus leaves based on nutritional quality. For me, this work highlighted the importance of diet quality for herbivores and how small changes in chemicals in leaves can have a dramatic effect on the distribution and survival of animals that eat them. This led to my PhD research, which focused on animal nutrition from a forest management perspective. In New Zealand, brushtail possums are a pest, so I worked on identifying nutritional explanations for the damage they cause to forests there. The importance of this field of research as well as the enjoyment I get from it has kept me interested for this long!
Q: Why did you choose your current institution to pursue your research?
I am currently working at the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute (FFPRI). My host researcher, Dr. Takuya Shimada, is a world expert on the nutritional ecology of the Japanese wood mouse. I have been following his research since I was an undergraduate student. I first met Dr. Shimada when he visited Australian National University about seven years ago. We spoke briefly about his work on proteins in the saliva of herbivores that help to deactivate harmful dietary tannins. After completing my PhD, I approached him to work on a fellowship proposal. Consequentially, I joined Dr. Shimada at FFPRI, which has been a welcoming and productive place to work so far.
Q: What else motivated you to further advance your research in Japan?
Japan is a beautiful country with many interesting ecological systems. It is one of the most diverse zoogeographical regions in the world and has more than 150 different mammal species. I wanted to do research in Japan to learn more about the country and to do important and interesting work. Continuing my work on mammal nutrition in Japan seemed like a natural progression and the JSPS Fellowship was a fantastic opportunity to achieve this.
Q: Let’s talk a bit more about your research, which addresses temperature in mammals’ ability to detoxify naturally occurring toxins in their diets. Do you think global warming will cause a decrease in the population of mammals or will they be able to adapt?
Because of complicated multi-level ecological relationships, all species are likely to respond differently to environmental changes. The effects of climate change are difficult to predict, but diet is part of the puzzle. For example, climate change is especially significant for animals with highly specialized diets (such as the Japanese wood mouse) because they are so well adapted to one food type and it is difficult for them to switch diets if their preferred food is no longer available or becomes too toxic. We know that populations of Japanese wood mice are influenced by fluctuations in the number of acorns produced each year, with years where acorn production is low resulting in lower numbers of mice. Habitat disruption caused by climate change may affect the production of acorns. On top of this, if ambient temperatures also influence the toxicity of the acorns that are produced, the consequences will be intensified.
Q: What influences do you think a decline in the population decline of mammals may have on life on the Earth including human beings?
There are countless direct and indirect effects of changes to mammal populations. Ecosystems host a delicate balance of many species and any disruption to the survival or phenology of one of these species can have a cascade of effects on the others. For example, the animals that rely on mice for food such as owls will be directly influenced by changes in mouse populations. There will ultimately be consequences for humans. For example, if acorns become too toxic to support mouse populations, we might expect to see an increase in the movement of mice over larger areas, into urban environments or farms in search of food, possibly leading to crop damage or the spread of disease.
Q: How would you like to contribute to solving issues related to mammal population through your research?
Changes to diet quality and diet choice by animals can often be the missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to predictions about what will happen to animal populations in a changing climate. I hope that I can continue to fill some of these gaps through my research. There is clearly an increasing global need for a focus on conservation and pest management. Knowing the dietary drivers for animal populations can help us to identify species or habitats that are at risk, and to protect the environment for everyone!
Q: What do you plan to do after your fellowship ends?
I would love to continue working in Japan and I am excited to see where the fellowship leads me. I can already see ways I would like to further explore the relationship between the diet and ecology of the Japanese wood mouse beyond my two-year plan.
Q: Please give some advice for young researchers who may be thinking about doing research in Japan.
Apply for a JSPS fellowship! It is a perfect chance to experience a new culture and country while achieving your research goals! My experiences so far have been so positive, including friendly people, great resources and generous support.
Dr. Windley’s host Dr. Shimada
During our interview with Dr. Windley, we had an interesting discussion on the effects of climate change on mammals, including humans. Her speaking about the “delicate balance among many species” and how the destruction of one “can have a cascading effect on the others” was suggestive of a Buddhist concept of coexistence deeply rooted in Japanese culture: That all things are not just interdependent but also inseparable. Dr. Windley is now doing her research amidst the “striking mountain” environment and “unique culture” that had previous drawn her to Japan as a tourist several times. That wanderlust still drives her to travelling around Japan, as she told us that she had already taken 12 Shinkansen train trips since May. When parting, Dr. Windley said that she’s “as happy as a lark” and would be off to the mountains for more fieldwork the next day.