Few animals can interpret echoes as keenly as bats.

And few places in the world are better suited to study bats than the Shandong University-Virginia Tech International Laboratory in Jinan, a city in eastern China where Joseph Sutlive is spending the summer.

Sutlive, a Virginia Tech doctoral student in the translational biology, medicine, and health [TBMH] program, recently flew to Jinan with the support of a National Science Foundation (NSF) East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes Fellowship award. 

His objective: discover more about how bats interpret echoes to navigate through dark, cluttered environments — with capabilities that far surpass human-made sonar systems.

“Bats have structures outside their nostrils that they are able to move five to 10 times a second — much faster than an eye-blink,” said Sutlive, who is from Charlotte, North Carolina. “I would like to learn more about how those movements affect their perception, so this NSF award helps support my research on the underlying neuroscientific basis of echolocation through the TBMH graduate program. It also gives me a chance to experience China.”

The grant is jointly funded by the NSF and the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology.

“This opportunity will broaden me as a researcher,” Sutlive said. “I am carrying out my TBMH dissertation research in the neuroscience focus area of the translational biology, medicine, and health graduate program, so I do biological experiments, and I also work with bat-inspired robots that use sonar and have silicone structures to match bat anatomy. It is a good combination.”

Sutlive collaborates with Hiroshi Riquimaroux, a neuroscientist at Shandong University with expertise in acoustics and the study of the physiology of hearing, particularly bat physiology.

“We are excited to see Joseph embrace the collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of the TBMH program, traveling internationally to bridge research in both engineering and neuroscience,” said Audra Van Wart, the assistant vice president for health sciences education at Virginia Tech, co-director of the TBMH program, and director of education and training at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. “His investigation into the neural underpinning of this specialized form of auditory processing could have both technological and biomedical applications.”

 Human-made sonar systems use microphones and speakers in sync, while bats capture more detailed information by using their nostrils or mouths to emit sound and using their ears as receivers. Sutlive will study the greater horseshoe bat, which is native to China and has particularly efficient biosonar.

Sutlive seeks to discover how the motion of the bats’ ear and nose structures influences the way their brains encode auditory signals. He will look for correlates of the facial and ear dynamics of the bats in neurophysiological recordings from the auditory brain stem, particularly two midbrain anatomical areas – the inferior and superior colliculus, which are involved in integrating and routing sensory perceptions.

“Joseph’s research is the first attempt to look at the neural basis for the dynamics in the biosonar systems,” said Sutlive’s advisor, Rolf Mueller, an associate professor of mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering. “We have worked on this topic using studies of animal behavior and robotic reproductions, but any neural correlates have yet to be found. I have high hopes that Joseph’s work can deliver those.”

Mueller, who directs the Virginia Tech Center for Bioinspired Science and Technology supported by the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, founded the Shandong University-Virginia Tech International Laboratory in 2010.

Sutlive’s NSF East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes Fellowship is the fifth such award for Virginia Tech students to work in China at the Shandong University-Virginia Tech International Laboratory.