Advice on how to become a successful parasite ecologist, Part II: Pieter Johnson

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. Last week, we heard from Dr. Armand Kuris from the University of California Santa Barbara. This week, we have some great advice from Dr. Pieter Johnson from the University of Colorado Boulder.

Who is Pieter Johnson?

When you read cool papers as a new student, it’s often hard to imagine the authors as real people instead of superheroes. So I will begin with a story about the Clark Kent version of Piet Johnson. In 2015, I met Piet for the first time. I’d actually talked to him twice before via email – once when I was an undergrad, and once when he emailed the anonymously-written Parasite Ecology blog – and he was so nice via email that I wasn’t particularly anxious about introducing myself at ESA. At least, I wasn’t anxious until he said in a ponderous voice, “Ahhh, I’ve been waiting to meet you.” Apparently my secret identity wasn’t as secret as I thought… but I digress.

After a brief chat, several freshwater ecologists – including Piet and myself – headed to a dive bar for some evening festivities. In fact, the bar was called The Dive Bar, and it housed a huge aquarium full of fish and a real live mermaid that periodically swam into view and blew kisses to the patrons. That’s where I learned that Piet is an enthusiastic and highly driven ecologist. He was fueled by scientific passion (and perhaps a dare) to go study mermaid ecology. Mermaids are known to be quite dangerous, so he prudently decided to get in the mermaid tank to study the habitat while the mermaid wasn’t present. And then he left to go do just that, taking nothing but a somewhat hastily concocted research plan. Coincidentally, a large red light began flashing behind the bar moments later, and Piet returned shortly after to report that you need special permits to study the endangered mermaid, and alas, he did not have such a permit.

And now for the superhero story. When he isn’t crashing mermaid parties, Dr. Johnson is busy being a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. His graduate students and postdocs have gone on to be successful parasite ecologists, and Piet is one of the best examples of productivity and success in the field of parasite ecology. In fact, he’s one of the most prolific parasite ecologists of the 21st century. He’s published 125 papers, some of which you can find summarized on this blog (here, here, here, and here). And his very first paper, which he submitted as an undergraduate, was published in Science.


So, without further ado, here’s his take on how to become a successful parasite ecologist.

Piet, how long have you been a parasite ecologist, and what do you study?

“Since the early 1990s. I study the role of parasites and pathogens in ecological communities and ecosystems. In its simplest essence, I’m often interested in what a world without parasites would look like – how would things be different? I’m biased in favor of freshwater systems, which have historically been a very rich arena for research on community and ecosystem ecology, even if the contributions of parasites were not always broadly considered by ecologists. Our group tries to bring a broad range of perspectives and approaches to this question, with particular emphasis on linking large-scale empirical datasets with experiments and theory.”

How did you get into parasite ecology?

“Through the back door. I’m primarily an ecologist who became interested in parasites and what they were doing. When I was a student, a lot of ecology textbooks barely mentioned parasites in deference to other ecological interactions such as competition and predation. The perception was that parasites and disease were more in the realm of veterinary science, parasitology, and epidemiology rather than core components of ecology. When I first started investigating frog deformities I kept on noticing what I would later learn were parasite cysts while examining animals under the microscope. At the time, it was difficult to find knowledgeable collaborators or faculty, and so I ended up spending a lot of time with textbooks and primary literature that eventually got me hooked on parasites. From my background in ecology, it was quickly apparent that there were many rich opportunities to better integrate research between ecology and parasitology/disease biology.”

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

“That’s a tough one. I think I look for that right balance between someone who is a big picture thinker but can also get a project finished. Someone who is passionate about scientific questions but has a healthy respect for data and what goes into collecting it – i.e., why details matter. I also look for someone who would mesh well with the current lab group and be fun to work with (after all, graduate school can last a while!). Sense of humor can help here. I therefore rely heavily on the assessments of my current and former graduate students when interviewing a candidate.”

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

“Working in disease ecology is challenging because it really requires that you master multiple fields of study, often demanding that you keep on top of literatures such as ecology, parasitology, epidemiology and aspects of veterinary science. This is also what makes it interesting and creates the potential to market yourself to multiple audiences, job opportunities, journals, etc. With this in mind, I think it’s essential to begin developing your own network early, reaching out to collaborate with other scientists, attend (and present) at diverse conferences, and in general to talk about your research (which will force you to refine it with others’ feedback). Second, I tend to emphasize the ‘learn by doing’ model – while it’s great to continue thinking, reading and refining, start a project early even if it’s not your magnum opus. Same goes with publishing – start early and learn to enjoy it as a major forum of communication. No one is born a good scientific writer so there’s really only one way to practice. And finally, take your ideas seriously. Most projects fail, but we often come up with better ideas while watching our initial project go down in flames. Write those ideas down (or the ones that come to you when you’re supposed to be doing something else) and, as the sting of your failed project fades, throw yourself into Plan B. Or Plan C… While science is often portrayed as an elegant, formalized test of pre-conceived hypotheses, much of it is iterative, messy, and opportunistic — being ready to recognize those opportunities is invaluable.”

That’s a lot of excellent advice! If you want to know more, I’d recommend finding Piet at a conference – maybe you can go study mermaids together!

3 thoughts on “Advice on how to become a successful parasite ecologist, Part II: Pieter Johnson

  1. Thanks for these blogs- these are great! I highly suggest Robert Poulin, Kevin Lafferty, Ryan Hechinger and Alison Dunn also if you don’t already have them on the list for interviews. 🙂

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