Most of the Penn State Beaver community knows Dr. Cassandra Miller-Butterworth as a biology professor. But there’s more to her than meets the eye.
Miller-Butterworth, assistant professor of biology, joined the Penn State Beaver faculty in 2008. Before coming to the United States in 2004, she lived in South Africa.
“I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. I later moved to Cape Town and went to the University of Cape Town,” Miller-Butterworth said in her distinctive accent.
While living in South Africa, Miller-Butterworth said she developed an interest in wildlife, in particular, bats.
“I got my bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in zoology,” Miller-Butterworth said. “I’ve studied wildlife since I started my master’s degree in 1997, so about 12 years now.”
In addition to teaching, she works with the Pennsylvania Game Commission by researching bats. “I’m doing research on conservation genetics, which involves using DNA-based techniques to study wildlife,” she said.
She explained that there are several applications for the use of conservation genetics, such as studying the structure of populations and genetic diversity and identifying new species.
“My Ph.D. research was on a South African species of bat, and my postdoctoral work was on monkeys, particularly the macaques. I now work on several species of bats, particularly the species in Pennsylvania that are being killed by the fungus that causes white nose syndrome.”
White nose syndrome is a mysterious disease that is killing off more than 75 percent of bats in colonies, Miller-Butterworth said.
She is working with the Pennsylvania Game Commission to determine where the fungus will strike next, because it has recently made its way to Pennsylvania and is affecting the little brown bat population.
Miller-Butterworth is also collaborating with Dr. Minhnoi Wroble Biglan, assistant professor of psychology at Beaver campus, to work on the genetics of people’s response to stress. Additionally, she is hoping to begin a project on bobcats in collaboration with Duane Diefenbach, a professor in the Forestry Department at Penn State University Park.
Students help Miller-Butterworth with her research. Sophomore Joel Rosenstern said doing research with Miller-Butterworth is a great opportunity for him because it pertains to his major.
“My major is veterinary biomedical sciences, so a project focused on animals and studying their genetic variability is something that is indeed useful for me,” Rosenstern said.
He is helping Miller-Butterworth in her research of the little brown bat and white nose syndrome.
“There is an unknown killer of many, many bats, sometimes up to 100 percent of individual populations, across New York and now spreading to Pennsylvania,” he said.
Rosenstern said the only common symptom the dead or dying bats have is a white fungus on their noses, hence the term white nose syndrome.
“My role in this research project is to extract mitochondrial DNA and determine how genetically variable the little brown bat species is, and if white nose syndrome will cause a bottleneck effect, which is when a species loses more genetic diversity, potentially changing or even killing off an entire species,” Rosenstern said.
Rosensern isn’t the only student who has worked with Miller-Butterworth. Melissa Schultz, a former Beaver student now studying at University Park, said she had Miller-Butterworth for biology in the 2008 spring semester.
“I did really well in the class,” Schultz said. “Toward the end of the semester, she approached me about being a teacher’s assistant to help with grading the following fall, and to ask if I was interested in working on a research project with her.”
Schultz said she worked with Miller-Butterworth in the lab, where they did genetic research in conjunction with the Pittsburgh Aviary on the Louisiana waterthrush, which is a species of small bird.
“The goal was to extract DNA from the feathers and analyze it to determine the sex of the bird,” Schultz said.
According to Schultz, doing this would help scientists gain a better understanding of breeding rituals in that species.
On top of her research and job, Miller-Butterworth is a new mother to son Joshua, who was born February 21. She said balancing her personal life and her work is difficult.
“I have a lot of late nights,” she said. “I live in Pittsburgh, so I have about an hour to an hour-and-a-half drive home from Penn State Beaver, depending on the traffic. When I get home, I spend time with my son before I get to work grading papers and preparing for the next day’s classes.”
She said she hopes that after this semester is over, balancing her personal life and her work will be a little easier. “I’m teaching a new class this semester, and I’m hoping that after having the class mapped out, things will be a little easier. And when Joshua gets a little older, balancing the two should be easier as well,” Miller-Butterworth said.
Originally written by Claire Kraynak for the Penn State Beaver Nittany News magazine, Fall 2009
Zoology, University of Cape Town, South Africa
Zoology, University of Cape Town, South Africa
Consequences of White Nose Syndrome in little brown bats in Pennsylvania