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Scott Kirkton, PhD

Union College

Scott Kirkton, PhD, is an associate professor of biological science at Union College in Schenectady, New York. He is also chair of the APS Section Advisory Committee.  

APS members are doing amazing things. We asked Scott Kirkton, PhD—one of our esteemed member-researchers—to tell us about his work and its implications on our understanding of life and health. He also shares how he’s bringing science to non-STEM students at his liberal arts college and why he’d still be working with animals even if he wasn’t conducting research.

What do you do? Describe your work.

I am a scholar-teacher at Union College. Union is an undergraduate liberal arts college with approximately 2,200 students. At Union, I teach human physiology, comparative animal physiology, exercise physiology and entomology courses.

My research explores a well-established hypothesis that larger insects will have more problems with oxygen delivery due to their longer, air-filled tracheal tubes. Using the American locust grasshopper, I study how jumping performance, jumping muscle lactate production and respiratory physiology varies during development from 10-milligram first instars to 3.2-gram adults. This amazing increase in body mass occurs over seven weeks and would be the equivalent of a normal human baby weighing 2,200 lbs seven weeks after birth. This massive increase in body size leads to a variety of stresses on their physiological systems.

How will your work benefit our understanding of life?

There are numerous ways my research can impact our understanding of life. First, any improved understanding of insect physiology may help explain how insects became the most evolutionarily successful animals on the planet. Insects make up nearly 80% of all known animals. Second, examining the insect tracheal system may help us learn why insects are relatively small compared to crustaceans or vertebrates. During the late Paleozoic Era (325 million years ago), fossil records show “gigantic” insects, such as hawk-sized dragonflies, dominated the planet. It has been suggested that increased atmospheric oxygen levels, nearly twice our current levels, facilitated the evolution of these larger insects. The extra oxygen helped overcome diffusion-based delivery problems associated with longer tracheal tubes. Third, by studying grasshopper locomotion, my work may help to better understand locust movement during costly outbreaks. For example, the 2003–2005 African locust outbreaks cost $450 million to stop and resulted in $2.5 billion worth of crop damage. Finally, grasshoppers are the only known insects to produce lactate during locomotion making them similar to human skeletal muscle. Previously, I have shown that jumping muscle lactate production increases with age. Grasshoppers can serve as an invertebrate model to investigate fundamental questions about muscle plasticity.

If you could do anything else, what would it be? Describe your passion.

I’ve always loved learning. When I was growing up, I wanted to be a doctor. However, in college, I took an entomology class because it was the only biology course available. That course changed how I viewed animals, especially insects. It led me to learn more about insects and all animals. My career goals transitioned from wanting to understand how people work to focusing on how animals work. I feel fortunate to be at a school like Union, where I can continue to learn and pursue topics that interest me. For example, my research spans the range from biochemical to biomechanical, depending on the question. In the classroom, I am developing a general education biology-dance class with a dance professor entitled “Understanding Human Movement.” Our goal is to have non-STEM students be both mindful about movement, as well as be able to understand how the body works.

If I was not a scientist, I probably would want to work at a zoo or a nature center. I would enjoy helping others gain a better appreciation for animals, especially the ones that aren’t cute and fuzzy.