How to become a successful parasite ecologist, Part V: Tara Chestnut

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, Dr. Robert Poulin from the University of Otago, and Dr. Kelly Weinersmith from Rice University. Today, we’ll continue with some unique and valuable insights from another parasite ecologist who followed a ‘non-traditional’ route to her current position: Dr. Tara Chestnut from the National Park Service.

Who is Tara Chestnut?

We usually only talk about cool science on this blog, without discussing the cool people behind the science. This post series has been so much fun for me, because I’ve been able to talk to and feature awesome scientists who I might not cross paths with otherwise. Tara is one of those awesome people. I’ve never met her in person, but she kindly volunteered to chat with me on the phone for an hour to share her story and her great insights for students.

Tara is an ecologist with the National Park Service at Mount Rainier National Park and the North Coast Cascades Network Inventory and Monitoring Network. Through that position she’s involved in a bunch of neat conservation and monitoring projects at Mount Rainier and other network parks for species like the Cascades Red Fox, Northern Spotted Owl, American Pika, and Elk. When the first bat infected with Pd, the white nose syndrome fungus, popped up in Washington in 2016, it was just 30 miles outside of Mount Rainier National Park. Tara was there, and she has been a leader the NPS WNS surveillance efforts on the west coast ever since. She has also done important work with Bd, the chytrid fungus, and it’s impacts on amphibians in the United States.

Through her position at the NPS and affiliated positions with two universities, she is able to mentor interns and graduate students, so she’s worth looking into when you’re seeking cool research projects. You can also get her advice for students for free, right here, from her answers to some questions that I asked her during our phone chat:

You took a “non-traditional” route to your parasite-related career. Can you tell me about that?

“Health and ecology have always been two themes in my life. My mom was an RN in a maternity hospital, so I grew up sitting in on birthing classes and tagging along during home visits and other aspects of her job. I also grew up collecting toads in buckets with my siblings and cousins.

I went on to be a first-generation college student, and I had ample opportunities for field experiences at The Evergreen State College. At the same time, I needed a job that was flexible with classes and field trips, so I worked the graveyard shift at a domestic violence shelter and as a doula.

When I decided to pursue my masters, I had to pick one theme or the other. I picked ecology. I focused on studying sexual selection in toads, with a relevant environmental policy component.

Around the same time I got accepted into my masters program, I landed a job working as a state agency biologist. The program offered evening classes so I could continue to work and I accrued vacation leave at my job so I could take time off for field work. Lucky for me toad breeding is explosive so I was able to do all of my field work in about two weeks. The week after I defended, I was able to renegotiate my salary.

When I was working as a Department of Transportation biologist, chytrid fungus was detected for the first time in Washington State, and I suddenly found myself studying toads and disease and policy. I knew that I had found the career that I wanted. But to properly study this, I needed to leave my comfy state job and get my PhD. I did my PhD at Oregon State University with Drs. Dede Olson and Andy Blaustein, and was funded by the USGS Amphibian Monitoring and Research Initiative.

After my PhD, I moved into my current job at the National Park Service. I also teach a disease ecology course as a masters elective and still occasionally do doula work when my schedule allows. My current job is pretty perfect in that it allows me to engage in research and monitoring related to the management of our most protected places, and if I choose, I can do outside work that keeps my foot in academia, and have odd hobbies like helping people have babies.”

Students often ask me if they should “take time off” and/or “work a real job” before graduate school, and I don’t have great insight for them. Was it hard for you to “go back” and get your PhD after time away from school?

“Graduate school was something that was an intimidating mystery to me. I didn’t have anyone close to me that went to grad school. I didn’t have trusted mentors to help guide me. After a few years of working seasonal field biologist jobs, it was clear that I needed an advanced degree to achieve my professional goals. When I started my masters program I had a ‘going away’ party and told my friends I’d be back in two years. I didn’t really take time off to ‘work a real job’, I worked while I went to school. These experiences gave me practical insights to my research that I wouldn’t have had otherwise, but my path was in public service; it wasn’t to become a tenure-track professor.

My advice to folks going into the trades is to consider college, because it will give you life experiences, and cause you to relate to people and think in ways that you wouldn’t experience elsewhere. Likewise, my advice to folks seeking an academic path is to seek experiences outside of academia for the same reasons.

Going back for a PhD was a whole different ball game though. In some ways it was easy, because I knew that I needed a PhD for the career that I wanted and by then I knew more people with advanced degrees. I was able to save money beforehand, which was important because my family didn’t have the resources to support me financially through graduate school. There were hard parts, though, like catching up on ecological theory and statistics after my career in the field, and learning new lab skills.”

What advice do you have for students just embarking on their careers? 

“Networking is important. When I was an undergraduate student, one of my professors made every student join a regional professional society, The Society for Northwestern Vertebrate Biology. It cost $15, which he included in the course fees. Membership subscribed us to print copies of the journal, and made it cheap to register for the society’s annual conference. I volunteered to help organize annual meetings and workshops related to emerging issues in parasite ecology, then became a board member. That early involvement in a professional society was important throughout my career, for things like finding seasonal field jobs and graduate advisors. It was easier to contact people for jobs when I had met them or at least knew of them, and because of my involvement in SNVB, some of them knew of me. It’s still important now, although my role is reversed. I met several prospective interns and employees at the meeting this year.” 

[That’s an excellent idea! Just chipping in to note that there are several student-friendly regional societies for parasitologists. Abstracts for the Southeastern Society of Parasitologists’ 2018 meeting are due March 15th]

“I also support being in school for as little time as possible. For me, school couldn’t be a luxury. It wasn’t an option for me to go back to grad school just to see if it led somewhere. I came from a working-class family, and the years that I spent in school were key salary-making years. So I was only in school as long as I needed to be to achieve my career goals – which turned out to be a lot of years. When I talk to kids about how long it takes to earn a PhD, I tell them I went to grade 24, which often gets quite a reaction.”

You’re the first person that I’ve featured who now studies parasites as a government scientist. Do you think there are many parasite ecology government jobs out there?

“I’m currently employed as a general ecologist, not as a parasite ecologist, but I’ve been able to incorporate parasites into my research when it’s relevant. Having a background and perspectives related to health and disease and some job flexibility has led me to explore parasite-related topics. For instance, the Cascades Red Fox has experienced recent, dramatic population declines, and no one knows why. My student and I are exploring whether parasites play a role in that decline, but another person in my position with a different background might focus on different things. Another example is how my previous work in environmental policy and more recent work on environmental detection of Bd have given me insights into limitations from both the policy side of things as well as the analytical methods. Because of this, I can better inform NPS surveillance and early detection/rapid response planning for other emerging infectious diseases such as Pd and Bsal.”

Tara’s last answer reminds me of a previous Parasite Ecology post regarding government parasite jobs:

“Here’s the take home message: you’re going to find very few ads for parasitologists, whether you’re looking for jobs in academia, government agencies or NGOs, or industry. You have much better odds of finding a job if you can sell yourself more broadly as a trophic ecologist, zoologist, microbiologist, etc.

However, it may be really easy to add parasite research into an otherwise parasite-free position. The world needs people to study emerging infectious diseases, but it may be that in order to be one of those people, you need to wear multiple hats in a job where you get to study parasites sometimes, but not all of the time.”

That was all great advice. For more info, you can find Tara’s website here and her Twitter here. Many thanks to Tara for contributing to the blog and our future careers!

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