Careers are odd things. The most important moments in your career might be purely serendipitous, causing you to owe the next 40 or 50 years of your life to being in the right place at the right time with the right people. But to capitalize on those chance events when they occur, you need the right training, hard work, and great mentors.
Careers in parasite ecology are no exception to these general rules, and 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 a series of posts from well-known parasite ecologists who can give us some insight into how they got started and their suggestions for success. You’ll see that the leaders in our field have had diverse beginnings and diverse careers, and they also have diverse advice for students. Thus, the advice contained herein is not meant to be “one size fits all,” but I do hope that there is something here for everyone.
Who is to Armand Kuris?
My first interview was with Dr. Armand Kuris, professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at the University of California Santa Barbara. I need to research this more, but Armand might be the first official “parasite ecologist,” because he specifically applied for and was accepted to a tenure track position for a “parasite ecologist” at UCSB back in 1975.
Armand’s work has been hugely influential in its own right, but he is perhaps equally well known for training exceptional students. Also, his famous parasitology course has received rave reviews. (I can’t wait to audit it myself!) Given his very student-friendly attitude, I thought he’d be a great first interview. And since I now get to see Armand every week, I had the opportunity to interview him in person. I’ve done my best to summarize his charismatic answers here:
What does Armand study?
Armand leads the UCSB Parasite Ecology lab with Kevin Lafferty and Mark Torchin, and their lab group is somewhat unique in that they have a lab mission statement. The mission of the UCSB Parasite Ecology lab is to understand the role of infectious processes in ecosystems. ANY ecosystem and ANY parasite are fair game! (But they do have their favorites.) You can see this diversity of lab interests on their webpage.
How long has Armand been a parasite ecologist, and how did he get into parasite ecology? (Also, what does Armand wish he studied?)
I’m sure that Armand will appreciate me telling you that he has been a parasite ecologist since before I was born; he started in 1964. Actually, he was a parasite ecologist even before my mom was born (if you go by the age that she tells people). That’s a lot of parasite ecology!
So, how did he get into parasite ecology way back in 1964? “By accident.” Armand had intended to go off to graduate school to become, “G-d’s gift to minnow taxonomy.” (Did I mention that he’s a character?) But his intended graduate advisor tragically passed away, forcing Armand to make other plans. He had enjoyed an undergraduate parasitology course at Tulane University with Frank Sogandares, where Armand was given a nutria (!!) to dissect and enjoyed thinking about complex life cycles. So he went off to do his Masters studying the myxozoan parasites of freshwater fishes. After that, he went on to a more ecology-focused PhD thesis, where he studied an isopod that is a parasitic castrator of crabs.
To his great dismay, Armand never returned to studying fishes, even though he loves them. Instead, he maintains beautiful aquaria and fish ponds here in Santa Barbara, while mostly studying invertebrates. I, for one, am very glad that he joined the Dark Side.
What kinds of skills or training does Armand look for in perspective graduate students?
Nothing in particular, actually! He’s more interested in finding students who are passionate, willing to think, and have demonstrated good work ethic. He also looks for students whose personalities will mesh well with the rest of the UCSB Parasite Ecology Lab.
What does Armand consider to be the most important things that graduate students can do to become successful parasite ecologists?
Picking the right thesis project is critical, and Armand suggests tackling the most important issue that you think you can do something about, and making sure that you care about that project.
He’s also a strong proponent of side projects, which he calls “adventure science.” Dan Janzen, the famous conservationist, taught Armand that there are two types of grad students, those that are r-selected and those that are K-selected students. The quick-to-finish r-selected strategy can be great for some students. But Armand promotes a K-selected strategy where students have more side projects. Taking expeditions and adventures when they are available enriches students’ knowledge and helps students network and gain important skills and experiences.
Armand has a wealth of other knowledge for graduate students, but instead of including it all here, I’ll encourage you to seek him out at a conference! You can also find more in these video interviews: here and here.