Volume 39
Issue 2

Dr. Tina Cheng spends her days studying bats to help save them

by Kristen Pope

Sitting at her computer, Dr. Tina Cheng is on a conservation mission. She opens up a database to see a table of data about a bat disease called White-nose Syndrome. After a few clicks, a map appears and she can see where the newest cases of the bat disease have been detected—this time in Texas. Dr. Cheng is Bat Conservation International’s data scientist, and she spends her days examining data to find answers to help save bats.

When scientists go into caves and mines to count and examine bats, they collect a lot of information about the bats they find, from how many are in one area (called population size) to their physical measurements. Many researchers also collect sound (also called acoustic) data. Dr. Cheng uses all the information these scientists collect in the field to learn more about bats and how to save them.

“It’s like detective work, with some storytelling,” she says.

When she was a kid, Dr. Cheng didn’t know what she wanted to be when she grew up. She loved animals, and her family always had pets like dogs, cats, and bunnies. Her playground was the outdoors, and her family spent lots of time camping and hiking in the mountains. Following her passions for animals and nature, she spent many years in school to ultimately attain the position she has today—one she didn’t even know was an option when she was little.

“As young children, we see careers like doctor, nurse, or firefighter—these typical career paths—but you don’t often see careers that fall off the beaten path,” she says.

Eager to learn more about animals and the outdoors, Dr. Cheng went to college at the University of California, Berkeley. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology. She spent her summers working in national parks, and during the school year, she worked in science classrooms, teaching young people about nature and animals. Her favorite classes to take in college were ones that allowed her to spend time outside.

“Most ecology classes involved some kind of field component—your laboratory,” she says. “You get out in nature and learn about your natural environment.”

After she graduated, she spent time making films and also working in outdoor education. She then decided to go back to school, earning a master’s degree from San Francisco State University. She wanted to keep learning, so she went to the University of California, Santa Cruz, and earned her Ph.D. (which is why she’s called doctor today). After finishing her Ph.D. program, she began working for Bat Conservation International.

Dr. Cheng encourages young conservationists to spend their time learning about science and participating in citizen science opportunities. She also encourages kids to follow their passions and interests to find their own dream career.

“Discover and explore the natural world around you,” she says. “Nature abounds, even in the most urban of environments. Learning about the plants and animals around us is a window into the natural, wild world.”