[I don’t usually post about my own science adventures on this blog, but I’m going to make an exception today because I think that the topic could be broadly interesting for you guys. This is cross-posted from the UCSB Parasite Ecology Lab’s Adventure Science blog, which you should follow!]
The University of California Santa Barbara Parasite Ecology Lab seems to host a perpetual stream of visiting scientists – including me! I’m currently a PhD candidate at Virginia Tech, but in Fall 2016, I had the opportunity to be the Queen of the Salt Marsh Parasites while I visited UCSB for a semester. I had a great time, I learned a ton, and I highly recommend that you – yes you! – try to visit the UCSB Parasite Ecology Lab, too.
The first step in visiting is finding the funding to do so. I’m incredibly lucky to be supported by an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, which pays my salary and tuition. NSF Fellows are also invited to apply for professional development opportunities, like the Graduate Research Internship Program (GRIP). The GRIP pairs fellows with mentors in federal agencies, and through their internships they work on “enhancing professional skills, developing networks, and preparing for a wide array of career options.” Fortunately for me, one of my science heroes – Dr. Kevin Lafferty from the USGS – was on the mentor list last year, and in an extra stroke of good luck I was successfully funded through the GRIP to go work with him.
It’s a ~40 hour drive from Virginia to Santa Barbara, California, so I had the opportunity to see a good chunk of our beautiful country with my faithful and fuzzy copilot while traveling to the internship. (Here he is cheesing for a photo at Ozone Falls, Tennessee.)
But when I reached Santa Barbara, I was disappointed to discover how hideous it was. There was unlimited sunshine and nice weather, and I could see the beach from my office window. And there was an authentic Mexican restaurant every 20 feet, including right near the salt marsh nature preserve where I did my field work (see next photo). It was rough. All I can say is that you’ll just have to learn to live with it if you visit.
Though Santa Barbara legitimately lacked one of my all-time-favorite things (caves), it made up for it by having many of my other all-time-favorite things: snails, parasites, and mud. I have seen some Virginia ponds with high snail densities, but nothing I’ve seen compared to the number of California horn snails that I found in the Carpinteria Salt Marsh (see every bump in the mud in the next photo). The majority of those snails harbored first intermediate host trematode infections.
And trematodes were my parasite of interest during my tenure at UCSB. A postdoc in the lab, Julia Buck, had recently found some interesting differences in the types of trematodes that infect male versus female snails. So I did some field and laboratory experiments to see if the foraging behaviors of male and females might explain sex-based trematode infection dynamics. For instance, some trematodes infect snails after the snails ingest trematode eggs from bird feces, so I did experiments to determine whether male or female snails were more likely to hang out near bird feces. You might say it was a “crappy” project.
Anyways, my visit was a blast, and I met a bunch of really amazing scientists from all career stages while I was there. I hope to go back soon, and maybe I’ll see you there when I do.