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SUNY Plattsburgh Microbiologist Dr. Kathy Lavoie Goes Underground In Kentucky's Mammoth Cave

After taking one look at her office, a visitor can be sure of one thing: Dr. Kathy Lavoie likes bats. After all, her shelves teem with stuffed animal versions of the mammal.

The dean of arts and sciences is an expert, a researcher and a constant observer of these creatures. She is also an explorer who often takes research trips through caves.

When she officially steps down from her deanship at the end of this academic year, she will be able to devote more time to such studies and to caving expeditions like the one she took in 2004, which landed her on the National Geographic channel’s “Amazing Caves.”

Visit to Mammoth Cave

This past summer, she took students and alumni to central Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave for research.

With more than 300 miles of passages, Mammoth is home to bats, crickets, salamanders and fish. Lavoie and her team spent their time counting cave crickets, also known as Hadenoecus subterraneus.

“They are a keystone species,” Lavoie said. “They are critical in the functioning of the terrestrial ecosystem in these caves. So, by monitoring the crickets, we are monitoring the health of the entire cave ecosystem and the surrounding surface ecosystem since they feed on the surface.”

How does one take a census of tiny bugs in a gigantic, dark cave? Carefully. The team marked the site into 10-meter sections and then counted all the crickets in each section. The number of sections marked off within a specific cavern can range from two to 20, with the biggest ones taking four or five hours to complete, Lavoie said.

“The students start to see crickets in their sleep by day two,” Lavoie said.

‘Opportunities for Students’

Lavoie has visited Mammoth Cave at least 40 times since coming to Plattsburgh in 1997. Often, she brings students with her.

“In doing the work, they learn a lot of about ecology and biology,” Lavoie said.

Lavoie has also brought students to Carlsbad Caverns, Florida Caverns and even to a sulfur cave filled with poisonous gas in Tapijulapa, Mexico.

“Usually I bring four to six students to Kentucky but only one at a time to Mexico because the cave is just too dangerous,” she said.

These visits often lead to further student trips to present the research results at conferences. Many students have also presented at Sigma Xi (The Scientific Research Society) meetings on campus, and many are co-authors of Lavoie's publications.

‘Research and Teaching to be Continued’

Having already conquered caves in South America, England, Italy, Australia, Mexico, Hawaii and the Galapagos, Lavoie will continue her research in the Czech Republic and Slovakia next summer as part of the International Congress of Speleology, an annual conference for caving associations.

She also plans to take a sabbatical next fall, when she will team up with the University of New Mexico to research the molecular identification of microbes from caves in Carlsbad Caverns, the Azores and Hawaii, before returning to SUNY Plattsburgh in the spring to teach full-time.

“I teach every semester, even though I don’t have to, because it’s my entertainment,” Lavoie said. “It’s the most fun I do.”

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