Course: Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Zoology
Institute: University of Queensland
Location: Brisbane, Queensland
Stefan Klose likes bats, specifically Australian flying foxes. These noisy little tree hangers are for him “the engineers that regenerate the forests”, maintaining forest biodiversity simply by spreading seeds after a fruit-filled meal.
Klose’s fascination with bats began with his zoology degree at the University of Queensland as he was casting about for an interesting creature on which to test some animal behaviour theories. Studies had previously focused on land-based mammals, rather than airborne ones. Thus he found himself in a hammock in a World Heritage rainforest in New South Wales surrounded by 28,000 flying foxes!
“I was able to observe the animals at all times of the day, collect data and get an in-depth feeling for their behaviour,” he says. “I caught fish from the nearby river, bought melons and corn from a local farmer and every second day I rode a really old bicycle wreck to a campground a few kilometres away for a shower and phone call.
“Those days were basic, yet probably they were some of the most rewarding ones in my life – they were an intense experience due to the simplicity of life in the bush and the intimate insights I was able gather into the complex social life of some of the biggest flying fruit-thieves on the planet."
While a flying fox colony might look chaotic to the untrained eye, it is, says Klose, incredibly organised, even consisting of neighbourhoods. “Bats have a sense of home,” he says. “They come back to the same tree, the same branch. They may even have been born in that tree and they go back to it.”
It was the access to rampant biodiversity that first drew Klose’s interest to Australia. “Australia is a unique playground of evolution – there is no other place in the world like it for an ecologist,” he says. “I knew that the diversity of species and ecosystems found on and around this continent is extraordinary and since the best way to learn about things is to experience them first hand, I simply had to go.”
He chose to study at UQ for several reasons, not least of all the “excellent library” and the courses in “reef, rainforest and outback ecology”.
The biggest difficulty he found initially was the language. “My head was just buzzing the first week,” he admits, “trying to work out whether to write notes in German and then translate later or to simultaneously understand, digest and immediately write it down in English.”
Being exposed to this fast, constant influx of English vocabulary and scientific terms was, he says, actually one of the benefits, along with the “high quality world-class teaching”.
“My supervisor was excellent,” remembers Klose. “Anne Goldizen was very focussed, dedicating time to each and every student everyday. It was more thorough, more organised than the German system I had experienced previously.
“My studies in Australia greatly influenced both my professional and personal development,” he insists.
“They set the stage for my PhD research supported by two Australian Government Endeavour Awards (2005-2006 and 2008), which I conducted between Panama, Germany and Australia, supervised by an international team of scientists.
“The academic and personal links established during my degree studies with Australian scientists were vital, they paved the way for a successful PhD project and scientific career.”
Klose, now a Postdoctoral fellow at Germany’s largest research foundation the DFG, is studying the interface of ecology and medicine and the dynamics of viruses.
“All mammals, including humans, carry a high diversity of viruses,” he explains, “but the question is when is there a risk of a new variant posing a threat?
“We need to understand what triggers a virus to jump from one species to another so we can understand how and when threats arise.
“If we can predict the risk of certain groups of viruses to cross species barriers and know the factors that influence the jump, such as stress in ecosystems, then from an ecological perspective we can inform health organisations and medical experts. They can then watch out for signs of epidemics and contain them early on before they can spread.”
Klose says that he applies the lessons learned in Australia each day in his career, but adds that academic success is just one part of the experience.
“It is equally important to see what everyday life is like in Australia,” he says.
“Take your time to experience the country and its people, be open and curious – it is worth it.
“Find locals to show you around, try things that seem strange to you, use roads less traveled, go to remote places. Silence in a desert with nothing but red pebbles to the horizon all round you can be a very intense experience. It is those kinds of impressions that you will remember for the rest of your life.”
It’s all about widening horizons, he explains, both personal and professional.