How to become a successful parasite ecologist, Part VI: April Blakeslee

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 BarbaraDr. Pieter Johnson from the University of Colorado BoulderDr. Robert Poulin from the University of Otago, Dr. Kelly Weinersmith from Rice University, and Dr. Tara Chestnut from the National Park Service. Today, we’ll hear from Dr. April Blakeslee, an Assistant Professor at East Carolina University.

Who is Dr. April Blakeslee?

I’ve never met April, but I’ve been following her marine invasion research for years, so I was thrilled when she volunteered to write this guest post for us. April has done a great job of describing her lab’s research at East Carolina University, as well as her prior research at awesome places like the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, so I’ll let you scroll down to read the details from April herself. I’ll just say that my favorite part of April’s work is that she often uses parasites as clever tools or bioindicators to infer things about host ecology that would be difficult or impossible to figure out otherwise. I wish more people would do this kind of research! But without further ado, here are her insightful answers to my five interview questions:

(1) How long have you been a parasite ecologist, and what do you study?

(2) How did you get into parasite ecology?

“I’m going to answer these two questions together because they actually go hand in hand in regards to my foray into the realm of parasite ecology, which is now one of the main areas of research for my lab. On the whole, my work is fairly multidisciplinary in marine ecology and includes several fields—conservation biology, invasion biology, biogeography, biodiversity, parasite ecology, and evolutionary ecology. Regarding where the parasite work all began… it started with my dissertation work at the University of New Hampshire (co-mentored by Dr. Michael Lesser and Dr. Jeb Byers), which focused on trying to answer a century-long question about the ecological history of a common marine snail in northeastern N. America (Littorina littorea, common periwinkle snail). To do so, we realized we needed to take an approach that utilized multiple lines of evidence, which is ultimately where my love of parasites started!

To resolve the snail’s cryptogenic (origin uncertain) history in N. America, we realized that we could combine both parasites and genetics as a novel tool (to my knowledge, this was the first time they were used together to try to answer such a question) to determine whether the snail was native or non-native. We used parasites as ecological tools in two main ways: (1) looking for a common signature of a marine invasion: parasite escape (i.e., significantly reduced parasite diversity in a host’s non-native versus native region); (2) performing a biogeographic investigation in the native (Europe) and cryptogenic (N. America) ranges to look for genetic founder effects in both the host and its most common trematode parasite (Cryptocotyle lingua).

Altogether, we found significantly lower trematode species richness in N. American versus European Littorina littorea, but no significant differences in trematode richness between the regions in two congener species (L. saxatilis and L. obtusata) native throughout the N. Atlantic. These results suggested parasite escape in N. American L. littorea compared to its congeners (Blakeslee & Byers 2008). Additionally, we found significantly reduced genetic diversity in N. America versus Europe for both the host snail and its trematode parasite, C. lingua. These results suggested genetic founder effects in N. America, another common signature among introduced species (Blakeslee et al. 2008). Altogether, these results (along with other lines of evidence, including historical ecology) suggested to us that L. littorea is likely non-native in northeastern N. America. And parasites were absolutely instrumental to our conclusions.

I began my dissertation work in 2001, so I guess that was the true beginning of my parasite ecology days. Since then, I have continued to look at parasites in a number of different ways—including molecular ecology, biogeography, host-parasite interactions, and the evolutionary ecology of host-parasite relationships. For example, right now we are investigating several parasite projects in my lab: (1) rhizocephalan infection of native Panopeid mud crabs by an invasive parasitic barnacle (Loxothylacus panopaei) and its impacts on host ecology and evolution (collaborating with Dr. Amy Fowler (GMU), Dr. Carolyn Tepolt (WHOI), and the SERC Invasions lab, led by Dr. Greg Ruiz). (2) Trematode infection in invasive and native green crabs (Carcinus maenas), invasive Asian shorecrabs (Hemigrapsus sanguineus), and native rock crabs (Cancer irroratus) (led by my MS student Rebecca Barnard, and also in collaboration with Dr. Carolyn Tepolt and Dr. Carrie Keogh (Emory University)). (3) Using parasites as indicators for biodiversity and conservation in several common hosts, including naked gobies, mud crabs, and mud snails (led by my PhD student Chris Moore). (4) Influence of an invasive ecosystem engineer (Gracilaria vermiculophylla) on community composition, including parasites (led by my PhD student Tim Lee, and in collaboration with Dr. Amy Fowler and Dr. Stacy Krueger Hadfield (UAB)). And there is much more parasite ecology work in addition to that!”

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

“I think enthusiasm goes a long way, along with fascination and the desire to want to know more. It’s of course very helpful to have some microscopy, molecular, and field skills, but I think most of those can be fairly-easily trainable. Having some background stats knowledge is also very helpful. So to me, enthusiasm, inquisitiveness, and work ethic are the most important attributes when picking a student for my lab.”

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

“Keeping up with the literature and being open to learning new skills are extremely helpful to becoming successful. To me, though, I think probably the most important and rewarding component is being collaborative – you can learn so much from colleagues and mentors. And if you get a good team together, you can bring in expertise and skills from multiple different areas and viewpoints. It’s also much more fun to work in a team—it’s a group of people with whom you can bounce ideas, and also they will hopefully get excited along with you about whatever it is you are working on. You can also convert your peers and colleagues to the importance of parasites in ALL things, which in my opinion, is always a success.”

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

“I am very happy that this parasite ecology blog exists! I have shared it with multiple students and peers – there are so many good stories and research developments. It is a lot of work to do it, and to do it well, so thank you! :)”

Awwwwwww, shucks! Many thanks to April for her kind words and great advice! It sounds like there is a lot of exciting research cooking in her lab that we’ll need to keep an eye out for. If you’re a student and you’d like to help April convert everyone to seeing “the importance of parasites in ALL things” – one of my favorites pastimes, as well –  you should start by checking out her website here.

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