Meet Helen Plylar, a sensory biologist studying infrared vision in snakes!

What is your scientific background?

I consider myself a snake biologist, and I am broadly interested in sensory biology, behavioral ecology, and comparative anatomy. I earned both my B.S. (2013) and my M.S. (2015) in Biological Sciences from Southeastern Louisiana University. My Master’s thesis research in Dr. Clifford Fontenot’s lab at SELU focused on how vision in semi-aquatic snakes is impacted by their transition from land to water. I am currently pursuing my Ph.D. in Dr. Michael Grace’s Neurobiology Lab at Florida Institute of Technology.

Helen Plylar/Dr. Pat Pendarvis

Why did you choose to become a scientist?

I have always been insatiably curious about the natural world and grew up reading National Geographic magazine, watching documentaries on Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, and visiting zoos and museums. However, I wasn’t the child who knew herself so completely that “Scientist” was the only thing she would ever aspire to be (side note: There’s nothing wrong with being that child—so if that’s you, that’s wonderful! Rock on!). My choice to become a scientist wasn’t innate, even if my scientific curiosity was. Instead, I chose to become a scientist so slowly, so gradually, that when I arrived at the decision it was like waking up after years in the dark. Science represents a vast and astounding collaboration that spans millennia and offers us a very real opportunity to make a lasting contribution (however big or small) that will never be forgotten. I just want to be a part of that collaboration, and to encourage others to take part as well.

How did you choose your field of study?

When I was an undergraduate, my mentor (Dr. Cliff Fontenot) and I met to discuss potential undergraduate research projects in his lab. From his list of project ideas, one topic, in particular, stood out to me: vision in semi-aquatic snakes. Sensory biology has long fascinated me, and this project provided an opportunity to study a fascinating, complex sensory system—the visual system—in one of my favorite groups of animals: snakes! As I continued this research during my Master’s, I began to realize how little work has been done on snake vision, or on snake sensory systems in general. For instance, of ~3,400 snake species, knowledge of vision is based on studies of only ~20 species…that’s barely scraping the surface!

A copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) that Helen works with at Florida Tech/Helen Plylar

Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?

For my dissertation research, I am combining behavioral, anatomical, and computational techniques to explore infrared “vision” in boas, pythons, and pit-vipers. Snakes in these three families possess pit organs, which are holes or folds within or between the facial and labial scales. These pit organs are lined with heat-sensitive Ca+ channels and are capable of detecting infrared (IR) radiation in the environment. Past research has demonstrated that IR-imaging in snakes is analogous to visual imaging, with information from both sensory systems ultimately processed in the visual centers of the snake brain. So, while a few other animals (e.g., vampire bats, and fire seeking beetles) are capable of advanced heat detection, IR-capable snakes are the only animals that “see” in IR, allowing them to form potentially detailed maps of the thermal environment. I believe that an understanding of how animals perceive and interact with their surroundings is crucial to adopting conservation and management strategies—something that is becoming increasingly important in our ever-changing world. Additionally, knowledge of the properties of the IR-imaging system in snakes may one day aid in the development of novel, bio-mimetic sensors, and other related technologies.

What are your biggest achievements, and what your biggest failures?

My two biggest achievements have definitely been earning my B.S. and M.S., as both degrees took a lot of time and perseverance. It’s hard for me to say what my biggest failures are, as I don’t like to look at my mistakes as failures. It’s super cliche, but every choice (for better or worse) has made me who I am in this moment.

Helen showing a banded watersnake (Nerodia fasciata) to a young girl during a Science Cafe event at SELU in Fall of 2014/ Rene Abadie, photographer for The Advocate

What is a typical day like for you?

In a typical day, I arrive at the snake facility around 9 am. For the next hour or so, I go from room to room and check each snake’s enclosure to ensure that it is clean, that they have water, and that they are healthy. My research activities can vary depending on what project I’m currently working on. However, independent of my research schedule, I spend nearly every day reading papers, taking notes, organizing and analyzing data, and drafting documents. I’m not sure many people realize how much writing scientists actually do, but trust me—it’s a lot!

What are the hardest parts related to your work?

Since I work with snakes, I constantly have to defend not only that choice (“Why’d it have to be snakes?!”—thanks, Indie, thank you SO MUCH for that iconic line.), but I also must defend the snakes themselves. With popular attitudes like, “the only good snake is a dead snake,” it can be a real struggle to convince the public that snakes are important and deserve to live just as much as we do. This means that every opportunity to talk about my research ultimately becomes an opportunity to advocate for snake acceptance and conservation—which is wonderful!

Helen (right) and labmate, Whitney (left), at a herpetology conference in Spring of 2014/ Helen Plylar

Do you come from an academic family? How does your family regard your career choice?

No, I don’t come from an academic family—not at all! Both of my parents are retired now, but my mother was a registered nurse for 20+ years, and at the time of his retirement my father was a Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal. My family has always encouraged me to pursue an education, and remain supportive—even if my choices have puzzled them at times.

Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?

My scientific interests often overlap with my personal interests, because I love animals and love snakes. However, beyond a love of and interest in Kingdom Animalia, I also enjoy food (eating it, and sometimes cooking it), travel, astronomy, reading (mainly science fiction, fantasy, and paranormal romance novels), and creative writing. I like being outdoors, and going on weekend adventures with my boyfriend (recently we went to Key West on two-day trip—the clear, turquoise water was amazing!). I have a moderate to severe obsession with my cat, Eddy. I’ve also been known to spend hours sifting through rocks and gravel in search of neat fossils, and am on a lifelong search for the perfect purse (it must have pockets for ALL of the things!).


You can follow Helen on Twitter!