How to become a successful parasite ecologist, Part VI: April Blakeslee

Students just discovering the joys of parasite ecology often find themselves wondering: how do I get there from here? Or perhaps wondering what a career in parasite ecology even looks like. So I’ve organized this series of posts from well-known parasite ecologists who can give us some insight into how they got started and their suggestions for success. So far, we’ve heard from Dr. Armand Kuris from the University of California Santa BarbaraDr. Pieter Johnson from the University of Colorado BoulderDr. Robert Poulin from the University of Otago, Dr. Kelly Weinersmith from Rice University, and Dr. Tara Chestnut from the National Park Service. Today, we’ll hear from Dr. April Blakeslee, an Assistant Professor at East Carolina University.

Who is Dr. April Blakeslee?

I’ve never met April, but I’ve been following her marine invasion research for years, so I was thrilled when she volunteered to write this guest post for us. April has done a great job of describing her lab’s research at East Carolina University, as well as her prior research at awesome places like the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, so I’ll let you scroll down to read the details from April herself. I’ll just say that my favorite part of April’s work is that she often uses parasites as clever tools or bioindicators to infer things about host ecology that would be difficult or impossible to figure out otherwise. I wish more people would do this kind of research! But without further ado, here are her insightful answers to my five interview questions:

(1) How long have you been a parasite ecologist, and what do you study?

(2) How did you get into parasite ecology?

“I’m going to answer these two questions together because they actually go hand in hand in regards to my foray into the realm of parasite ecology, which is now one of the main areas of research for my lab. On the whole, my work is fairly multidisciplinary in marine ecology and includes several fields—conservation biology, invasion biology, biogeography, biodiversity, parasite ecology, and evolutionary ecology. Regarding where the parasite work all began… it started with my dissertation work at the University of New Hampshire (co-mentored by Dr. Michael Lesser and Dr. Jeb Byers), which focused on trying to answer a century-long question about the ecological history of a common marine snail in northeastern N. America (Littorina littorea, common periwinkle snail). To do so, we realized we needed to take an approach that utilized multiple lines of evidence, which is ultimately where my love of parasites started!

To resolve the snail’s cryptogenic (origin uncertain) history in N. America, we realized that we could combine both parasites and genetics as a novel tool (to my knowledge, this was the first time they were used together to try to answer such a question) to determine whether the snail was native or non-native. We used parasites as ecological tools in two main ways: (1) looking for a common signature of a marine invasion: parasite escape (i.e., significantly reduced parasite diversity in a host’s non-native versus native region); (2) performing a biogeographic investigation in the native (Europe) and cryptogenic (N. America) ranges to look for genetic founder effects in both the host and its most common trematode parasite (Cryptocotyle lingua).

Altogether, we found significantly lower trematode species richness in N. American versus European Littorina littorea, but no significant differences in trematode richness between the regions in two congener species (L. saxatilis and L. obtusata) native throughout the N. Atlantic. These results suggested parasite escape in N. American L. littorea compared to its congeners (Blakeslee & Byers 2008). Additionally, we found significantly reduced genetic diversity in N. America versus Europe for both the host snail and its trematode parasite, C. lingua. These results suggested genetic founder effects in N. America, another common signature among introduced species (Blakeslee et al. 2008). Altogether, these results (along with other lines of evidence, including historical ecology) suggested to us that L. littorea is likely non-native in northeastern N. America. And parasites were absolutely instrumental to our conclusions.

I began my dissertation work in 2001, so I guess that was the true beginning of my parasite ecology days. Since then, I have continued to look at parasites in a number of different ways—including molecular ecology, biogeography, host-parasite interactions, and the evolutionary ecology of host-parasite relationships. For example, right now we are investigating several parasite projects in my lab: (1) rhizocephalan infection of native Panopeid mud crabs by an invasive parasitic barnacle (Loxothylacus panopaei) and its impacts on host ecology and evolution (collaborating with Dr. Amy Fowler (GMU), Dr. Carolyn Tepolt (WHOI), and the SERC Invasions lab, led by Dr. Greg Ruiz). (2) Trematode infection in invasive and native green crabs (Carcinus maenas), invasive Asian shorecrabs (Hemigrapsus sanguineus), and native rock crabs (Cancer irroratus) (led by my MS student Rebecca Barnard, and also in collaboration with Dr. Carolyn Tepolt and Dr. Carrie Keogh (Emory University)). (3) Using parasites as indicators for biodiversity and conservation in several common hosts, including naked gobies, mud crabs, and mud snails (led by my PhD student Chris Moore). (4) Influence of an invasive ecosystem engineer (Gracilaria vermiculophylla) on community composition, including parasites (led by my PhD student Tim Lee, and in collaboration with Dr. Amy Fowler and Dr. Stacy Krueger Hadfield (UAB)). And there is much more parasite ecology work in addition to that!”

(3) What kinds of skills or training do you look for when you’re considering taking on new (graduate) students?

“I think enthusiasm goes a long way, along with fascination and the desire to want to know more. It’s of course very helpful to have some microscopy, molecular, and field skills, but I think most of those can be fairly-easily trainable. Having some background stats knowledge is also very helpful. So to me, enthusiasm, inquisitiveness, and work ethic are the most important attributes when picking a student for my lab.”

(4) What are the most important things that (graduate) students can do to become successful parasite ecologists?

“Keeping up with the literature and being open to learning new skills are extremely helpful to becoming successful. To me, though, I think probably the most important and rewarding component is being collaborative – you can learn so much from colleagues and mentors. And if you get a good team together, you can bring in expertise and skills from multiple different areas and viewpoints. It’s also much more fun to work in a team—it’s a group of people with whom you can bounce ideas, and also they will hopefully get excited along with you about whatever it is you are working on. You can also convert your peers and colleagues to the importance of parasites in ALL things, which in my opinion, is always a success.”

(5) Is there anything else that you’d like to share with the blog audience?

“I am very happy that this parasite ecology blog exists! I have shared it with multiple students and peers – there are so many good stories and research developments. It is a lot of work to do it, and to do it well, so thank you! :)”

Awwwwwww, shucks! Many thanks to April for her kind words and great advice! It sounds like there is a lot of exciting research cooking in her lab that we’ll need to keep an eye out for. If you’re a student and you’d like to help April convert everyone to seeing “the importance of parasites in ALL things” – one of my favorites pastimes, as well –  you should start by checking out her website here.

February and March Parasite Haiku


Wasps up with parasite conservation in Britain?

I’m a few days late, but Happy Taxonomist Appreciation Day! Despite my tardiness, I am troubled by our global shortage of taxonomists, and I strongly support initiatives to (1) train more taxonomists, (2) provide them with livable and enjoyable career opportunities, and (3) find ways to integrate and value their important work amongst other science. I have mostly thought about this from a parasite conservation perspective, and I recently read an excellent paper that resonated with those thoughts. Below are some quotes (and my commentary) from Shaw and Hochberg (2001) that describe a parasite taxonomy crisis and some potential solutions:

Britain has a long history with natural history. For centuries, amateurs and professionals have been collecting and describing species from that relatively small land mass. In Britain, people probably don’t even seem like weirdos for gleefully wielding their custom-ordered extendable butterfly nets in public spaces. (Whatever, I’m not bitter, or anything.) Anyways, you might think that all of that enthusiasm for natural history has led to a complete inventory of Britain’s wildlife. But you’d be wrong.

“While the public may hold reasonably accurate perceptions that tropical ecosystems are teeming with unrecognized species, the average person in Britain is unaware that knowledge of the British biota – widely acknowledged as the best studied in the world – is also very limited.”

How could our taxonomic knowledge be so limited?! Parasites aren’t the only poorly known British taxa, but I’ll be talking about issues relevant to parasite taxonomy today. In particular, Shaw and Hochberg (2001) focused on a specific group of parasites: parasitoid wasps.

So how many parasitoid wasp species are there in Britain? When this paper was published in 2001, ~6000 species were known. To put that in perspective, that’s ~1/4 of the total known British insect biodiversity! To reiterate, without counting all of the other parasitic insects (e.g., fleas, lice), at least one quarter of the insect biodiversity is parasitic. I say “at least” because…

“…it seems likely that across parasitic Hymenoptera as a whole our knowledge of what is in the British fauna may be about 30-40% incorrect, or possibly even more…it strongly suggests that parasitic Hymenoptera will eventually turn out to be an even larger fraction of the total British insect fauna.”

Oh dear. We know that there must be many more parasitoid wasp species in the world (and Britain, specifically) than we currently know about for three reasons. First, whenever people conduct new field surveys or look at museum collections of parasitoids, they find that only a small fraction of the collected species have been described before. Second, many specimens are later found to be incorrectly identified, because morphological identification of parasitoid wasps is hard. And third, even when people think that they have nailed their morphological identifications, they might later find that the “species” that they are referring to is really a “morphospecies” representing 2 or 20 or even more cryptic species that are indistinguishable morphologically. For instance, here’s a quote from Smith et al. (2014) – an ambitious study matching morphological identifications to DNA barcodes for hundreds of parasitoid wasp species – regarding just one of the many cryptic species complexes that they uncovered:

“This minute black wasp with a distinctive white wing stigma was thought to parasitize 32 species of ACG hesperiid caterpillars, but barcoding revealed 36 provisional species, each attacking one or a very few closely related species of caterpillars.”

Yikes! When I read that, I thought, “Wow, if I ever need to do anything with parasitoid wasps, I’m going to need to find a collaborator who specializes in parasitoid wasp taxonomy.” So let’s say that I do need hypothetical help with an important biodiversity conservation project in Britain. Would I be able to find a parasitoid wasp expert to collaborate with? According to Shaw and Hochberg, in 2001, there were ~6 such experts – you know, approximately one expert for each thousand wasp species. (No, no, it’s fine, writing this isn’t giving me anxiety.) That seems like a tiny number of people who are responsible for ¼ of Britain’s insects! But at least there are some parasitoid wasp experts in Britain. The situation is likely worse in most other regions, where natural history is likely less popular and species diversity might be greater.

We must also remember that even if we can associate a DNA barcode or morphological description with a species name, we do not necessarily “know” that species. I brought this up a few weeks ago after reading John Lawton’s autecology and extinction crisis essay, and Shaw and Hochberg (2001) were clearly concerned about the biodiversity listicle phenomenon, too:

“Other insects are in a frame in which parasitic Hymenoptera are not, because parasitic wasps, with a low proportion of exceptions, are mostly just names.”

Are you having feelings about parasitoid wasps now?

Screen Shot 2018-03-24 at 8.31.09 PM

Of course, it is worth asking why we need to know more about parasitoid wasps. Research and conservation funding are limited, so why prioritize research regarding parasitoid wasps? I’ll give three possible reasons, but others could be suggested:

(1) If we are conserving biodiversity for its intrinsic value and/or because we believe that the most biodiverse or species-rich ecosystems are the best (for any given criteria), then we should perhaps prioritize research on the most species-rich and neglected taxa. Until we understand the most biodiverse taxa, we probably can’t maximize biodiversity conservation.

(2) Parasitoid wasps can be beneficial for humans. For instance, because parasitoid wasps tend to be highly host specific, they can be used as targeted biocontrols for agricultural pests. We’re talking serious economic worth. And given their documented effectiveness with controlling pests, it is likely that they play important roles in controlling populations of many other insect species that we don’t currently consider ‘pests’, but which might become problematic if they lost their parasitoid overlords. So maybe we should prioritize learning more about parasitoid wasps and conserving them to prevent potential economic losses.

(3) Parasitoid wasps might be especially vulnerable to extinction or co-extinction, so we might need to prioritize their conservation to prevent rapid biodiversity loss. As Shaw and Hochberg (2001) point out:

“The brief statement in the Insect Red Data Book (Shaw in Shirt (1987): 257-8) on parasitic wasps is to the effect that they must be considered among the most threatened of British insects, but that attempting a listing of endangered species would be quite hopeless in view of our poor knowledge. The message in this has, however, generally been as totally ignored as the parasitic wasps themselves.”


“..our parasitic Hymenoptera fauna…must – without any real doubt, given their high trophic level and characterizing levels of specialization and dependence – be happening at a rate that would surely be considered alarming, if only it could be noticed.”

Worryingly, that decline has been noticed outside of Britain:

“Therion (1976; 1981) reporting on the Ichneumonidae… fauna of Belgium, found that of the 122 species formally present 32 (26%) could not be found in a period of intensive collecting between 1950 and 1974/1979, with at least 30 further species (25%) showing major declines.”

After making cogent arguments for prioritizing parasitoid wasp conservation, Shaw and Hochberg (2001) provided several suggestions for improving those conservation efforts. One suggestion – including parasitoid wasps in Species Action Plans for better-known host species, like endangered butterflies – is something that I’ll come back to in my next parasite conservation post. For today, I’d just like to emphasize their number one suggestion:

“Nothing would do as much for the conservation of parasitic Hymenoptera as the provision of properly funded, career-length posts for alpha-taxonomists in major collection-building research institutions.”

Thank you, existing parasitoid wasp taxonomists! You rock. And I hope we can make and support many more scientists like you in the near future.


Shaw, M. R., and M. E. Hochberg. 2001. The Neglect of Parasitic Hymenoptera in Insect Conservation Strategies: The British Fauna as a Prime Example. Journal of Insect Conservation 5:253–263.

Smith, M. A., J. J. Rodriguez, J. B. Whitfield, A. R. Deans, D. H. Janzen, W. Hallwachs, and P. D. N. Hebert. 2008. Extreme diversity of tropical parasitoid wasps exposed by iterative integration of natural history, DNA barcoding, morphology, and collections. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 105:12359–12364.

How to become a successful parasite ecologist, Part V: Tara Chestnut

Students just discovering the joys of parasite ecology often find themselves wondering: how do I get there from here? Or perhaps wondering what a career in parasite ecology even looks like. So I’ve organized this series of posts from well-known parasite ecologists who can give us some insight into how they got started and their suggestions for success. So far, we’ve heard from Dr. Armand Kuris from the University of California Santa Barbara, Dr. Pieter Johnson from the University of Colorado Boulder, Dr. Robert Poulin from the University of Otago, and Dr. Kelly Weinersmith from Rice University. Today, we’ll continue with some unique and valuable insights from another parasite ecologist who followed a ‘non-traditional’ route to her current position: Dr. Tara Chestnut from the National Park Service.

Who is Tara Chestnut?

We usually only talk about cool science on this blog, without discussing the cool people behind the science. This post series has been so much fun for me, because I’ve been able to talk to and feature awesome scientists who I might not cross paths with otherwise. Tara is one of those awesome people. I’ve never met her in person, but she kindly volunteered to chat with me on the phone for an hour to share her story and her great insights for students.

Tara is an ecologist with the National Park Service at Mount Rainier National Park and the North Coast Cascades Network Inventory and Monitoring Network. Through that position she’s involved in a bunch of neat conservation and monitoring projects at Mount Rainier and other network parks for species like the Cascades Red Fox, Northern Spotted Owl, American Pika, and Elk. When the first bat infected with Pd, the white nose syndrome fungus, popped up in Washington in 2016, it was just 30 miles outside of Mount Rainier National Park. Tara was there, and she has been a leader the NPS WNS surveillance efforts on the west coast ever since. She has also done important work with Bd, the chytrid fungus, and it’s impacts on amphibians in the United States.

Through her position at the NPS and affiliated positions with two universities, she is able to mentor interns and graduate students, so she’s worth looking into when you’re seeking cool research projects. You can also get her advice for students for free, right here, from her answers to some questions that I asked her during our phone chat:

You took a “non-traditional” route to your parasite-related career. Can you tell me about that?

“Health and ecology have always been two themes in my life. My mom was an RN in a maternity hospital, so I grew up sitting in on birthing classes and tagging along during home visits and other aspects of her job. I also grew up collecting toads in buckets with my siblings and cousins.

I went on to be a first-generation college student, and I had ample opportunities for field experiences at The Evergreen State College. At the same time, I needed a job that was flexible with classes and field trips, so I worked the graveyard shift at a domestic violence shelter and as a doula.

When I decided to pursue my masters, I had to pick one theme or the other. I picked ecology. I focused on studying sexual selection in toads, with a relevant environmental policy component.

Around the same time I got accepted into my masters program, I landed a job working as a state agency biologist. The program offered evening classes so I could continue to work and I accrued vacation leave at my job so I could take time off for field work. Lucky for me toad breeding is explosive so I was able to do all of my field work in about two weeks. The week after I defended, I was able to renegotiate my salary.

When I was working as a Department of Transportation biologist, chytrid fungus was detected for the first time in Washington State, and I suddenly found myself studying toads and disease and policy. I knew that I had found the career that I wanted. But to properly study this, I needed to leave my comfy state job and get my PhD. I did my PhD at Oregon State University with Drs. Dede Olson and Andy Blaustein, and was funded by the USGS Amphibian Monitoring and Research Initiative.

After my PhD, I moved into my current job at the National Park Service. I also teach a disease ecology course as a masters elective and still occasionally do doula work when my schedule allows. My current job is pretty perfect in that it allows me to engage in research and monitoring related to the management of our most protected places, and if I choose, I can do outside work that keeps my foot in academia, and have odd hobbies like helping people have babies.”

Students often ask me if they should “take time off” and/or “work a real job” before graduate school, and I don’t have great insight for them. Was it hard for you to “go back” and get your PhD after time away from school?

“Graduate school was something that was an intimidating mystery to me. I didn’t have anyone close to me that went to grad school. I didn’t have trusted mentors to help guide me. After a few years of working seasonal field biologist jobs, it was clear that I needed an advanced degree to achieve my professional goals. When I started my masters program I had a ‘going away’ party and told my friends I’d be back in two years. I didn’t really take time off to ‘work a real job’, I worked while I went to school. These experiences gave me practical insights to my research that I wouldn’t have had otherwise, but my path was in public service; it wasn’t to become a tenure-track professor.

My advice to folks going into the trades is to consider college, because it will give you life experiences, and cause you to relate to people and think in ways that you wouldn’t experience elsewhere. Likewise, my advice to folks seeking an academic path is to seek experiences outside of academia for the same reasons.

Going back for a PhD was a whole different ball game though. In some ways it was easy, because I knew that I needed a PhD for the career that I wanted and by then I knew more people with advanced degrees. I was able to save money beforehand, which was important because my family didn’t have the resources to support me financially through graduate school. There were hard parts, though, like catching up on ecological theory and statistics after my career in the field, and learning new lab skills.”

What advice do you have for students just embarking on their careers? 

“Networking is important. When I was an undergraduate student, one of my professors made every student join a regional professional society, The Society for Northwestern Vertebrate Biology. It cost $15, which he included in the course fees. Membership subscribed us to print copies of the journal, and made it cheap to register for the society’s annual conference. I volunteered to help organize annual meetings and workshops related to emerging issues in parasite ecology, then became a board member. That early involvement in a professional society was important throughout my career, for things like finding seasonal field jobs and graduate advisors. It was easier to contact people for jobs when I had met them or at least knew of them, and because of my involvement in SNVB, some of them knew of me. It’s still important now, although my role is reversed. I met several prospective interns and employees at the meeting this year.” 

[That’s an excellent idea! Just chipping in to note that there are several student-friendly regional societies for parasitologists. Abstracts for the Southeastern Society of Parasitologists’ 2018 meeting are due March 15th]

“I also support being in school for as little time as possible. For me, school couldn’t be a luxury. It wasn’t an option for me to go back to grad school just to see if it led somewhere. I came from a working-class family, and the years that I spent in school were key salary-making years. So I was only in school as long as I needed to be to achieve my career goals – which turned out to be a lot of years. When I talk to kids about how long it takes to earn a PhD, I tell them I went to grade 24, which often gets quite a reaction.”

You’re the first person that I’ve featured who now studies parasites as a government scientist. Do you think there are many parasite ecology government jobs out there?

“I’m currently employed as a general ecologist, not as a parasite ecologist, but I’ve been able to incorporate parasites into my research when it’s relevant. Having a background and perspectives related to health and disease and some job flexibility has led me to explore parasite-related topics. For instance, the Cascades Red Fox has experienced recent, dramatic population declines, and no one knows why. My student and I are exploring whether parasites play a role in that decline, but another person in my position with a different background might focus on different things. Another example is how my previous work in environmental policy and more recent work on environmental detection of Bd have given me insights into limitations from both the policy side of things as well as the analytical methods. Because of this, I can better inform NPS surveillance and early detection/rapid response planning for other emerging infectious diseases such as Pd and Bsal.”

Tara’s last answer reminds me of a previous Parasite Ecology post regarding government parasite jobs:

“Here’s the take home message: you’re going to find very few ads for parasitologists, whether you’re looking for jobs in academia, government agencies or NGOs, or industry. You have much better odds of finding a job if you can sell yourself more broadly as a trophic ecologist, zoologist, microbiologist, etc.

However, it may be really easy to add parasite research into an otherwise parasite-free position. The world needs people to study emerging infectious diseases, but it may be that in order to be one of those people, you need to wear multiple hats in a job where you get to study parasites sometimes, but not all of the time.”

That was all great advice. For more info, you can find Tara’s website here and her Twitter here. Many thanks to Tara for contributing to the blog and our future careers!

Advice on how to become a successful parasite ecologist, Part IV: Kelly Weinersmith

Students just discovering the joys of parasite ecology often find themselves wondering: how do I get there from here? Or perhaps wondering what a career in parasite ecology even looks like. So I’ve organized this series of posts from well-known parasite ecologists who can give us some insight into how they got started and their suggestions for success. So far, we’ve heard from Dr. Armand Kuris from the University of California Santa Barbara, Dr. Pieter Johnson from the University of Colorado Boulder, and Dr. Robert Poulin from the University of Otago. Today, we’ll hear from our most broadly famous parasite ecologist yet: Dr. Kelly Weinersmith from Rice University.

Who is Kelly Weinersmith:

I don’t think that Kelly actually needs an introduction, but it’s an honor to write one, so I’m going to! Kelly has done a bunch of awesome parasite ecology, her dissertation work focused on an adorable parasite, and she embraces the parasite puns. But I’m not going to focus my introduction on those main ingredients of her awesomeness, because I think it’s more important to talk about her secret ingredient (which I shall now reveal to the world, mwahahaha!):

Like many people who love parasites, Kelly and I were both pulled into the gravity well that is the UCSB Parasite Ecology lab, so we are academically related in a way that defies analogy (step sisters?). But I never actually overlapped with Kelly. Instead, my first interaction with Kelly was as a rapt audience member during one of her ASP talks. She is an excellent communicator. And she’s taken those communication skills far beyond sharing her parasite science with other parasitologists. For instance, she’s done all kinds of outreach and teaching regarding parasites and science more broadly, including creating excellent podcasts. She also co-authored a best-selling popular science book (see below) that tricked millions of everyday people – including me – into reading an entire book about emerging technologies and enjoying it. I routinely try to unlock my house with my car key fob, and yet I devoured the chapter about affordable space travel. She’s truly a communication wizard.

I emphasize some of Kelly’s accomplishments that aren’t parasite-themed because most masters and PhD students studying parasites will not go on to be tenure track faculty who study parasites. Instead, they’ll take their many marketable skills and use them to do other cool things. And if they have secret ingredients, like excellent communication skills, they’ll be more tantalizing for future employers, funders, etc. Kelly hasn’t stopped studying parasites, but as you’ll see below, she’s doing several exciting things with her degree that you might not have predicted. Her career has been an inspiration for me, and I hope that you’ll be inspired, too. Without further ado, here are her insightful answers to some questions that I asked her:

1.      How long have you been a parasite ecologist, and what do you study?

“I started to study parasite ecology in 2009, when I became a visiting scholar in Dr. Armand Kuris’ Lab at the University of California Santa Barbara. I study parasites that manipulate the behavior of their host, and ask questions such as: What host behaviors change following infection? Through what mechanisms does the parasite manipulate host behavior? To what extent does manipulation increase parasites fitness?”

2.      How did you get into parasite ecology?

“For most of my life, I didn’t really think about parasites. If I did think about parasites, the thought was something along the lines of “ugh, parasites are the worst…I wish I wasn’t sick.” Then I read Carl Zimmer’s Parasite Rex, and I saw parasites in a new light. While I still recognized that parasites can cause immense pain and suffering, I also saw how exquisitely fine-tuned they could be to their host. It was amazing to me the ways that parasites could evade our immune systems and manipulate behavior. Parasites suddenly became so much more than just a nuisance.

But I still didn’t plan on studying parasites. Then I was fortunate enough to get into Dr. Andy Sih’s behavioral ecology lab at the University of California Davis. Andy is full of great ideas for dissertations, and one day he asked me what I thought about studying parasites that manipulate host behavior – and he pointed me towards Dr. Jaroslav Flegr’s work on how infection with Toxoplasma gondii is correlated with responses to personality tests in humans. I was studying animal personality at the time, and the idea of studying how parasites influence host personality kept me up at night. It sounded so awesome! So Andy hooked with me up the Ecological Parasitology lab at UCSB so I could get some training in parasitology….and the rest is history!”

3.      What has your career been like since you finished your PhD?

“After finishing my PhD I started as the Huxley Fellow in Ecology and Evolution in the BioSciences Department at Rice University. I loved this job. It’s somewhere between a postdoc and an assistant professor – you don’t run your own lab, but you have control over the research projects you conduct, mentor undergraduates and graduates, teach one or two courses, and attend faculty meetings. The department was really amazing. I started to work with Dr. Scott Egan on a parasitoid that we believed was manipulating the behavior of a gall wasp, which expanded my research into a new study system.

While working at Rice, my husband (Zach Weinersmith, the creator of SMBC) and I also got a book deal with Penguin Press to write a book about emerging technologies. This was a little insane, since it meant that all of our “free time” needed to spent writing this book. We also had parenting to contend with, as we already had a young daughter and a son on the way. But around this time we were also getting excited about the possibility of starting a small ecology research station, and a successful book seemed like a way we could make this dream a reality. So for 3 years we worked like crazy, hardly ever taking a day off. (Note – I don’t mean to glorify working this hard. It was bad for our health and happiness in a lot of ways, but we hoped that a successful book would allow us to take a different path that would bring our family a lot of happiness for years to come. So we decided that short term hardships would be worth the long term gains.)

The book (Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve And/Or Ruin Everything) hit the New York Times Bestseller list and now we’ve moved to Virginia, where we’re looking for land on which we’ll set up the research station. The goal is to start a small station that will hold occasional workshops, have housing for collaborators, and host short and long-term field studies. I’m excited about mentoring students, spending lots of time studying natural history, and working from home. I’m adjunct assistant professor in the BioSciences department at Rice University, and hope to maintain my affiliation with Rice (I really love the BioSciences group, and hope to continue working with them for years to come) while starting up a non-profit associated with the station.”

4.      What are the most important things that (graduate) students can do to prepare for a successful career?

“Here are some things that were either helpful to me, or are things I saw my successful friends doing:

1) Read a lot, and read broadly. The importance of reading a lot of the work in your field probably doesn’t not need to be outlined here, but it’s critical to read outside your field as well. This will give you new ideas, and give you the ability to speak intelligently with a broader audience (which is critical when, for example, you’re applying for jobs). Also, read things other than journal articles, and think about what makes for good writing in any genre. You may be surprised at the ways in which reading broadly improves your scientific writing.

2) Take the time to really learn statistics and coding.

3) Write as you go! This can be so hard, but it’s so important. There is always something else you need to do that can get in the way of writing, but if you haven’t written up an experiment then as far as the world knows (and in particular as far as job search committees know) you haven’t done it. Figure out a way to ensure that you have time to write regularly. For example, pencil out two hours every day on your schedule, and tell people you absolutely are not free to meet during this time. You need to make your writing time sacred.

4) One thing that was really helpful for me was to organize a symposium at a national conference. Dr. Zen Faulkes and I organized a symposium on parasite manipulation of host phenotype for the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, and applied for (and received) NSF funding to coverage travel and lodging costs for our presenters. This was a great experience, because it allowed me to gather together and work closely with lots of big names in my field. It was a lot of work, but it was also a lot of fun and was a great networking opportunity.

5) Write grants. Then write more grants. Try to fund your own research during your dissertation, and try to fund yourself.

6) Make yourself competitive for more than one potential career path. For example, if you really want to be a professor, consider incorporating into your dissertation a chapter that involves creating a new molecular technique. This way you’ll be competitive for academic jobs, and a job in industry or government. Alternatively, you could include a chapter looking at how something like a pollutant impacts parasite ecology in your system, which could make you competitive for things like environmental consulting jobs. I also strongly suggest diving into coding and statistics. Being a pro in these areas makes you better able to leverage your data to answer scientific questions, makes you an attractive collaborator, and gives you skills that could be applied in other careers.”

That is all great advice that I strongly endorse. Many thanks to Kelly for volunteering her time and insight!

Do fungi have parasites?

Parasite ecologists spend copious time studying parasitic fungi. For instance, we’re interested in controlling the fungal pathogens responsible for the wildlife diseases that have decimated populations of amphibians, bats, and snakes. And we’re fascinated by the Cordyceps fungi that manipulate the behavior of ants and other insects. But how often do we study parasites that infect fungi (i.e., host = fungus)? Before I tackle this question, here’s a little backstory:

Last week, I went grocery shopping and bought some baby portabella mushrooms. I was feeling lazy, so I bought them pre-sliced and packaged in a cardboard box, which had an open top and was clearly labelled “sliced baby portabella mushrooms”. When I was checking out, the adult human bagging my groceries picked up the box and asked, “Are these vegetables?”

Yes, a piece of my soul died. But the educator inside me immediately announced, without distress or pause, “Oh, no, they aren’t. We generally eat three types of organisms: (1) Animals, where meat comes from, (2) plants, where vegetables come from, and (3) fungi, where mushrooms come from.” And while the woman nodded, seeming to confirm this information from some previous memory, a different, dark voice in my head added, “…and they all have worms.”

Fortunately, some intelligent internal filter kept me from saying the last bit out loud. But as I made my way to my car, I became increasingly concerned that even though I could tell you what kinds of parasites infect most plant and animal host taxa, and I knew that fungi must have parasites, I didn’t know which parasites infected fungi.

I did some googling as soon as I arrived home, and I learned that fungi have fungal, bacterial, and nematode parasites. Larval flies in mushroom gills can also be considered parasites of fungi. But overall, I didn’t find much information about parasites of fungi in my (admittedly not exhaustive) search. It might be that (1) I gave up too soon, (2) we don’t use classical parasitological terms for parasites of fungi, and/or (3) we study parasites of fungi less than those of animals and plants.

If you’re an expert on the parasites of fungi, please share your wisdom with us!


Moa extinctions caused even moa parasite co-extinctions

Happy Valentine’s Day, Everyone! I only ever blog about papers that I love, and today is no exception. But in honor of this holiday, I’m going to break from tradition and blog about a paper that I love and I co-wrote, and I hope that you’ll forgive my shameless plug.

Within the parasite conservation literature, there exists a paradox: we expect that many, many parasite species should be threatened by co-extinction with their threatened host species, yet we have documented few parasite co-extinctions. If parasite species are so vulnerable, why haven’t we seen more co-extinction events? It might be that parasites are not as vulnerable to co-extinction as we originally assumed. (I could write several blog posts about that possibility, and perhaps one day I will.) Another possibility is that many co-extinctions have occurred, but we failed to notice and/or document them. The latter possibility is the topic of today’s post.

In order to document an extinction (or co-extinction), we need to know two things. First, we need to know that the species once existed. To document which species once lived, we usually rely on historical resources: fossilized remains, museum specimens, published scientific studies or surveys, and even old books/diaries/letters. But many species don’t fossilize well, and many more are too small, cryptic, or seemingly important to end up in museum collections, scientific studies, or other historical records. Second, we need to know that the species doesn’t exist anymore. Documenting the absence of a species is incredibly difficult; its only really possible via exhaustive surveying. That’s why we are sometimes pleasantly surprised when a thought-to-be-extinct species is suddenly found living somewhere unexpected, still hanging in there.

For parasites, I like to think of these two documentation steps as compiling/comparing passenger lists. To know that a parasite species once existed on a host species, we need to create a historical passenger list for that host species. It is hardest to (re)create a complete passenger list for a host species that went extinct (=sank) long ago. But it’s also very difficult to document the parasite passenger lists for host species that are currently threatened (=sinking), because they might have already lost some passengers (e.g., if we de-loused the hosts when we brought them into cavity), or the hosts might be too rare or difficult to thoroughly sample for parasites. Once we have recreated the best historical passenger list that we can – which are probably incomplete, but better than nothing – we need to compare it to all of the parasite passenger lists for all extant host species, to see if any extant host species served as “life boats” that carried some parasite species into the present. As I mentioned last week, we are far from having sampled all extant parasite species on all extant host species, so we’re currently working with incomplete present-day parasite passenger list.

Given all of the difficulties described above, it’s not surprising that we have documented so few parasite co-extinctions! But this week in PNAS, Boast et al. (2018) published a great paper that convincingly documents the co-extinction of a few parasite species that once infected the now-extinct moa (giant flightless birds from ancient New Zealand). They used ancient DNA to reconstruct the best ever ancient passenger list for several moa species, and they were able to show that some parasite species survived to present day on other bird species (e.g., the kiwi), while others did not. You should definitely give their paper a read!

But if you want a shorter, bloggier version of the parasite story, you could also go read the open access commentary about Boast et al.’s paper that I co-wrote. It was super fun to write, because we were allowed to talk about parasite co-extinction and fossil poop at the same time, and it was especially fun because I was invited to co-author the piece by my science hero. (Thanks, Kevin!)

I think those are enough warm, fuzzy, parasite valentine feels for now. Happy reading!