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!

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

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