Postdoc Spotlight: Anusha Shankar

Anusha Shankar

September 29, 2023

Anusha Shankar is a postdoc in the Lab of Ornithology and ecology and evolutionary biology from Chennai, India. She holds a Ph.D. from Stony Brook University in New York, and her research at Cornell focuses on how hummingbirds manage their energetic needs. She is a recipient of a Postdoc Achievement Award for Excellence in Mentoring as part of Cornell’s celebration of National Postdoc Appreciation Week 2023.

What is your area of research, scholarship, or work and why is it important?

I study hummingbirds! I look at how they manage their energetic needs. They have crazy high metabolisms, and so they use up any energy available in their bodies really fast. They also barely store any fat as backup energy, so they can run out of energy within a couple of hours if they don’t feed. What I’m especially fascinated by is their ability to enter a hibernation-like state at night. They get super cold—down to around the 50s Fahrenheit or 10 C—and drop their metabolism by 90%. They’re pretty useless in this state—they can’t respond to any stimuli—but they’re alive! And this lets them make it through the night. At Cornell, I’ve been studying what genes turn on and off in different organs that allow them to stay alive in this cold and slow metabolic state of torpor.

What are the broader implications of this research, scholarship, or work?

This project can help us understand how animals manage their body temperature and metabolism across biological scales, from the level of the whole organism to the genes that regulate its biological processes. It has implications for biomedical science—with improved knowledge of how animals safely cool (often down to near freezing) and rewarm themselves, we can perhaps do the same for safer human surgeries. It also has benefits for our understanding of the evolution of endotherms—birds and mammals—and of heterotherms—animals that can change their body temperatures. 

What does receiving a Postdoc Achievement Award mean to you?

Mentoring students gives me purpose and so much satisfaction. I am so proud of what my students have achieved. I am also really invested in making academia a supportive place and spreading a culture of thoughtful and intentional mentoring. If we don’t inspire curiosity and freedom in our trainees, and encourage them to be whole people in many dimensions, I think we are failing them. I feel very thankful to all my students, and the people who participated in the CVG mentoring program, both as mentors and mentees, for being present and devoting their time to thoughtful mentorship. I’m also so thankful to the variety of mentors I’ve had over the years, for teaching me the best and hardest parts of mentoring, and how to cultivate inspiration and positivity. 

What hobbies or activities do you enjoy in your spare time?

Salsa and bachata dancing, reading lots of fiction, and recently improv!

Why did you choose Cornell?

For the independence and encouragement that the Rose Fellowship that the Lab of Ornithology provided. But since getting here, my expectations were surpassed x1000. I have gained so much more in terms of community and knowledge and networks than I could have imagined.

What is next for you?

I am moving to India for a faculty position at a research institute called the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Hyderabad (on September 24th!). 

Do you have any advice for current graduate students?

Get lots of hobbies and have a strong identity outside of academia :). It will serve you well!