Advice on how to become a successful parasite ecologist, Part III: Robert Poulin

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, and Dr. Pieter Johnson, from the University of Colorado Boulder. This week, we have some great advice from Dr. Robert Poulin, from the University of Otago.

Who is Robert Poulin?

I’ve never actually managed to meet Robert in person, but he’s an excellent example of success in parasite ecology, because he’s a giant in the field. You’ve probably seen his work on this blog many times (e.g., here); he even won the Golden Cercaria Award for being the most prolific parasite ecologist of the 21st century! Furthermore, after I began this post series, some of Robert’s former students/mentees specifically wrote to me to tell me that Robert was the perfect candidate for a student advice post. So without further ado, here are his thoughts!

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

“I started thinking of myself as a parasite ecologist, instead of simply an ecologist, in the late 1980s when I was a graduate student. My research group’s interests have evolved and broadened over the years, but have remained aligned with four major themes. First, we explore the fascinating phenomenon of host behavioural manipulation by parasites, from its ecological significance down to its underlying mechanisms. Second, we investigate the forces shaping the evolution of parasites, in particular the evolution of life history traits such as body size, host specificity, and the complexity of transmission pathways. Third, we study the patterns and determinants of parasite diversity and biogeography, from small to global scales. Finally, we investigate the role of parasites in natural ecosystems, i.e. how they affect community structure and food web stability, and how parasitism may interact with environmental change to influence the properties of ecosystems. Our research uses multiple approaches, and extends to all host or parasite taxa, and to marine, freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems.”

How did you get into parasite ecology?

“I’m an accidental parasitologist. I started off in graduate school with a pretty basic ecological research topic: what abiotic and biotic factors regulate growth and survival of young sticklebacks in their first months of life. My very first field sample revealed “little things” attached to the fish. Working in a remote village on the shores of the St. Lawrence River estuary in the days before the internet, I had access to no information and could only guess at what they were. They later turned out to be parasitic crustaceans (copepods and branchiurans). It took only very simple preliminary observations in aquaria to suggest that infection by these “little things” caused the fish to behave differently, from their tendency to school to their choice of microhabitat. Months later, back at the university, I convinced my adviser that I wanted to re-direct my thesis to look at the behavioural effects of parasite infection. That was it; I have not looked back nor regretted it since.”

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

“Beyond the obvious, e.g. solid formation in ecology or parasitology, an ability to write, strong quantitative skills, demonstrated ability to get the job done, etc., I think passion and drive are essential. I prefer enthusiastic students who need to get held back a little rather than those that need constant nudging. Also, my research group is diverse and cosmopolitan, so I look for people who are likely to fit well in our team.”

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

“Instead of repeating the advice I often hear in reply to this question (publish early and in top journals, etc), here are a few other thoughts. First, think and read broadly, well outside the bounds of your current research. New concepts emerging in peripheral disciplines can prove extremely useful to the study of parasite ecology. The first person to read about these new ideas and apply them to parasite ecology moves one step ahead of the pack. For example, late in my graduate studies and into my postdoc, I read about the emergence of two new approaches to the analysis of large datasets, unknown in ecology then but now widely used: meta-analysis and phylogenetically-controlled comparative analysis. Having just read about these techniques in journals of social sciences and evolutionary biology, I was among the very first to apply these methods to parasite ecology. The papers I published from this work have generally become well-cited and certainly boosted my early career.

Second, actively seek opportunities to collaborate, either with other parasite ecologists or with colleagues in other areas. The synergy of ideas and the long-term relationships that come out of collaborative projects are certainly important for success.

Finally, don’t be afraid to take a few risks. You may have an idea for a really cool experiment that, if successful, would yield super interesting results, but everyone tells you its chances of success are low. You don’t want all your experiments to be risky, but taking the odd risk with the possibility of a nice payoff can be worth it.”

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

“Maybe a final bit of advice for those who want to pursue a career in parasite ecology (or science in general): keep your chin up! As you submit a growing number of articles, grant proposals or job applications, rejection becomes inevitable. A degree of resilience is essential to cope with the first few rejections and carry on undeterred. Persistence is a key ingredient of success, especially early in your career.”

All great advice. Many thanks to Robert for contributing to the blog and our future careers!

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