Faculty of Science

Out from the cold: Brent Sinclair wins the 2013 Faculty Scholar Award

Dr. Brent Sinclair

Dr. Brent Sinclair

By Mitch Zimmer

Even though Bent Sinclair of the Biology Department knew that he was in the running for the Faculty Scholar Award, he was probably one of the last to know that he had won.  “I heard by mistake,” Sinclair says. “The information comes by letter but I was in New Zealand on sabbatical so the first I heard of it was in an email asking when I’d be available for the presentation ceremony.”

Upon receiving the prize, Sinclair’s first thought was to use the money as an addition to the operating funds of his lab.  However after reading the terms of the award, which is given to a researcher at a significant point in their career, Sinclair decided to use the funds towards a more strategic use. “At the moment I am thinking about one or two overseas trips to places where I don’t currently have collaborators, but have the potential for a lot of collaboration, one is Brazil the other is China.” His intention is to use the money as a way of building strategic collaborations with people and institutions. “That’s not only be good for me, but it will be good for the department and the faculty as well to get us known is some of those places,” says Sinclair. “I actually decided to do something useful with it instead of buying more tips and tubes.”

At first, Sinclair’s choice of seeking collaborations in Brazil seems out of place considering that the bulk of his work concerns how insects deal with cold environments. He says that a number of the questions asked about how low temperatures limit insects can be  can flipped around to ask how  high temperatures and drying out limit insects.  “Those questions are closely related and because there is quite a lot of money at the moment for interactions particularly for Brazilian students and post docs to come here, it would be really nice to leverage those questions,” says Sinclair. Once here the researchers could “learn some of our techniques and some of our approaches and take those back to Brazil to address those questions in the context of global change in the tropics which is really an important topic as well.”

“There is lots of variation among insects and their ability to survive cold,” says Sinclair.  “If you go to the tropics, insects there are not very good at surviving cold, but those in the high arctic are extremely good at surviving and there’s a very steep relationship between those two variables. Whereas summer here is a lot hotter than summer in the Amazon and so we have the situation where it seems that there isn’t much more capacity to push high temperature tolerance in insects.” As desertification becomes a threat in the tropics, then “high temperatures are going to be important because insects are already up near the edge of what they can tolerate.” The ability to deal with temperature fluctuations is one major factor, another is how insects cope with drying out in a process known as dessication. “We’re starting to find that dessication is very intimately tied with over wintering and we’re starting to understand that better and so it’s very easy to turn those questions into what’s happening in tropical environments.”

In Brazil there was a period where comparative physiology was in low esteem, now there seems to be a resurgence in interest. “We’re starting to realize that in order to address some of these big biological questions on climate change we need to know what the underlying mechanisms are to the patterns that we see.”