In Search of European Blind Salamanders in the Caves of Slovenia – Stanley K. Sessions – Slovenia 2016-2017

My story begins in 1991 when, as a freshly minted Assistant professor, I decided to follow my undergraduate mentor’s footsteps to Yugoslavia to study the European blind cave salamander (Proteus anguinus), also called the “olm.”

My Yugoslavian contact, Dr. Boris Sket of the University of Ljubljana, welcomed me to visit his lab but warned that it was not the best time since they were “about to be bombed.” After many missed opportunities, I finally got the opportunity to visit Slovenia in 2013 but by this time, Dr. Sket was retired! He forwarded my email to his colleagues, and finally it landed in the email box of one Dr. Lilijana Bizjak-Mali (Lila), who was familiar with my work and enthusiastically invited me to come for a visit.

Thus, I planned a very short excursion for about ten days. However, we soon realized that my “simple” research project had become much more complicated. Among other things, we discovered that olms had a condition called X-Y translocation. In humans, an X-Y translocation is a rare genetic disease, but in olms it has become fixed in all individuals everywhere! To make a long and complicated story shorter, we suspected that this was part of an evolutionary story that could help us understand how olms had adapted to cave life.

Obviously, this was going to be a long and difficult research project, and in 2016, I successfully applied for a Fulbright to allow me to spend most of a year working on this project at the University of Ljubljana. During that time, I immersed myself in Slovenian culture. I purchased a bicycle for my 9-mile commute and I went shopping at local grocery stores. I met many Slovenians and was invited for Christmas and other holidays. I even shopped for “Slovenian clothes.” We even had our “Andy Warhol moment” when Lila and I were both interviewed on national Slovenian TV about our research on olms. Even the US Ambassador to Slovenia became acquainted with our research.

All too soon, my Fulbright came to an end but we weren’t finished with the research, so I successfully applied for a one-month extension of my Fulbright for January 2017. But, as is so common in science, the more research we did the more questions we generated. Lila got her own Fulbright to work in my lab, but the pandemic broke out, so it was postponed for one year. I am happy to report that she is finally coming in April 2021 to work in my lab for four months.

It is incredible for me to think back and realize that what I thought was going to be a short, simple research project blossomed into an amazing, life-changing relationship with Slovenia and Slovenians that has now lasted for nearly 8 years and is still going strong. I am indebted to Fulbright and to my Slovenian friends and colleagues for giving me this opportunity!

Stanley K. Sessions – Fulbright to Slovenia 2016-2017

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