How to become a successful parasite ecologist, Part I: Armand Kuris

Careers are odd things. The most important moments in your career might be purely serendipitous, causing you to owe the next 40 or 50 years of your life to being in the right place at the right time with the right people. But to capitalize on those chance events when they occur, you need the right training, hard work, and great mentors.

Careers in parasite ecology are no exception to these general rules, and 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 a series of posts from well-known parasite ecologists who can give us some insight into how they got started and their suggestions for success. You’ll see that the leaders in our field have had diverse beginnings and diverse careers, and they also have diverse advice for students. Thus, the advice contained herein is not meant to be “one size fits all,” but I do hope that there is something here for everyone.

Who is to Armand Kuris?

My first interview was with Dr. Armand Kuris, professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at the University of California Santa Barbara. I need to research this more, but Armand might be the first official “parasite ecologist,” because he specifically applied for and was accepted to a tenure track position for a “parasite ecologist” at UCSB back in 1975.

Armand’s work has been hugely influential in its own right, but he is perhaps equally well known for training exceptional students. Also, his famous parasitology course has received rave reviews. (I can’t wait to audit it myself!) Given his very student-friendly attitude, I thought he’d be a great first interview. And since I now get to see Armand every week, I had the opportunity to interview him in person. I’ve done my best to summarize his charismatic answers here:

What does Armand study?

Armand leads the UCSB Parasite Ecology lab with Kevin Lafferty and Mark Torchin, and their lab group is somewhat unique in that they have a lab mission statement. The mission of the UCSB Parasite Ecology lab is to understand the role of infectious processes in ecosystems. ANY ecosystem and ANY parasite are fair game! (But they do have their favorites.) You can see this diversity of lab interests on their webpage.

How long has Armand been a parasite ecologist, and how did he get into parasite ecology? (Also, what does Armand wish he studied?)

I’m sure that Armand will appreciate me telling you that he has been a parasite ecologist since before I was born; he started in 1964. Actually, he was a parasite ecologist even before my mom was born (if you go by the age that she tells people). That’s a lot of parasite ecology!

So, how did he get into parasite ecology way back in 1964? “By accident.” Armand had intended to go off to graduate school to become, “G-d’s gift to minnow taxonomy.” (Did I mention that he’s a character?) But his intended graduate advisor tragically passed away, forcing Armand to make other plans. He had enjoyed an undergraduate parasitology course at Tulane University with Frank Sogandares, where Armand was given a nutria (!!) to dissect and enjoyed thinking about complex life cycles. So he went off to do his Masters studying the myxozoan parasites of freshwater fishes. After that, he went on to a more ecology-focused PhD thesis, where he studied an isopod that is a parasitic castrator of crabs.

To his great dismay, Armand never returned to studying fishes, even though he loves them. Instead, he maintains beautiful aquaria and fish ponds here in Santa Barbara, while mostly studying invertebrates. I, for one, am very glad that he joined the Dark Side.


What kinds of skills or training does Armand look for in perspective graduate students?

Nothing in particular, actually! He’s more interested in finding students who are passionate, willing to think, and have demonstrated good work ethic. He also looks for students whose personalities will mesh well with the rest of the UCSB Parasite Ecology Lab.

What does Armand consider to be the most important things that graduate students can do to become successful parasite ecologists?

Picking the right thesis project is critical, and Armand suggests tackling the most important issue that you think you can do something about, and making sure that you care about that project.

He’s also a strong proponent of side projects, which he calls “adventure science.” Dan Janzen, the famous conservationist, taught Armand that there are two types of grad students, those that are r-selected and those that are K-selected students. The quick-to-finish r-selected strategy can be great for some students. But Armand promotes a K-selected strategy where students have more side projects. Taking expeditions and adventures when they are available enriches students’ knowledge and helps students network and gain important skills and experiences.

Armand has a wealth of other knowledge for graduate students, but instead of including it all here, I’ll encourage you to seek him out at a conference!  You can also find more in these video interviews: here and here.

EEID 2017 Recap

EEID 2017 in Santa Barbara was a hit! The poster session and all of the social events took place outside in beautiful weather, to the immense enjoyment of (almost) everyone. There were 57 talks and ~135 posters, which added up to roughly two dump truck loads of cool science. I was especially thrilled with the Ecological Levels for Health State of the Science Summit, which helped to kick off a productive SNAPP working group.

Like the hardcore parasite ecologist that I am, I brought a shiny new acute Lyme infection with me to EEID. I thought this would give me some solid street cred, but Dan Salkeld told us that there are a whopping 300,000 new Lyme cases in the U.S. every year. So I guess I’m not that special (1/300,000). My infection must just be my penance for living in a state with many fried chicken restaurants.

Anyways, antibiotic-induced sun sensitivity forced me to spend a lot of time lurking in shady corners like the subterranean beast that I am. But I somehow still managed to meet and re-connect with a ton of awesome scientists. This was my first conference where the “secret identity” of the parasite ecology blogger was no longer a secret, and I want to thank all of the very kind people who found me and told me that they enjoy the blog and use it in their classes. You’re the best!

I also want to share two hilarious things that I learned from talking to all of you in person. First, many people have been wrongly accused of being the parasite ecology blogger over the years – sorry about that! But I was super flattered to learn that people assumed that I was an eminent parasite ecologist. And second, many of the people in our field are disturbingly proficient Internet stalkers! Their tales of hunting down my true identity – sometimes successfully! – would make for a good novel.

And finally, I want to announce the winner of the Unofficial EEID 2017 Parasite Ecology Cartoon Contest: Tara Stewart! Tara gave an interesting and remarkably poised talk about how Daphnia can resist and clear their Metschnikowia infections. If I remember correctly, Daphnia cartoons have won every parasite ecology cartoon contest that I’ve ever blogged. But I think that beyond Daphnia just being super cute, Tara’s cartoons really deserved first place for science communication excellence. Congratulations!

There will be a similar Unofficial ESA 2017 Parasite Ecology Cartoon Contest in roughly one month. The non-Daphnia people better show up and represent!

Unofficial EEID 2017 Parasite Ecology Cartoon Contest

EEID 2017 starts this weekend, and I hope to see y’all there! As I always do, I’ll be conducting an unofficial parasite ecology cartoon contest when I watch talks – mostly for my own enjoyment, but also so that I can brag up peoples’ talks and parasite cartoons after the conference. If you want to play – and I hope you will – all you need to do is put a cartoon in your EEID talk.

Finer details:

You do not need to make your own cartoon. If you use a cartoon created by someone else, it’ll count as long as you properly attribute credit to the artist.

The cartoons don’t need to be funny! I’m just looking for cartoons that help communicate your work to the audience. That being said, anything punny is worth mega bonus points.

My favorite cartoonist will be awarded an almost entirely worthless prize (i.e., some publicity for your cool science and bragging rights for a year).

I might be able to look at cartoons on posters, too, but I can’t guarantee broad coverage, because I have to stand at my poster for a while. So let me know if you want me to try to swing by your poster.

Good luck!!

Poll: Which of these are zoonotic pathogens?

If you’re a frequent follower of this blog, you’ll remember a recent post series discussing how the definition of the term “vector” is not universal; different people/fields use different definitions. That surprised me, but not as much as a recent conversation that I had regarding the term “zoonotic disease.” So, I’ve come out of my unofficial blogging hiatus (sorry! life happened!) to pose this question to you, my dear guinea pigs readers: which of these represent zoonotic pathogens?

The purple arrows in the cartoons mean “transmit to.” So we have:

  • A. Humans transmit to humans
  • B. Humans transmit to the environment and the environment transmits to humans
  • C. Humans transmit to invertebrates (e.g., mosquitoes) and invertebrates transmits to humans
  • D. Humans OR vertebrate animals transmit to humans
  • E. Humans OR vertebrate animals transmit to the environment and the environment transmits to humans
  • F. Humans OR vertebrate animals transmit to invertebrates (e.g., mosquitoes) and invertebrates transmits to humans
  • G. Vertebrate animals transmit to humans
  • H. Vertebrate animals transmit to the environment and the environment transmits to humans
  • I. Vertebrate animals transmit to invertebrates (e.g., mosquitoes) and invertebrates transmits to humans


Ticks suck moose dry

Like many New Englanders, moose aren’t particularly good at personal grooming. (I can say that because I’m a Mainer!) While deer and elk groom off winter ticks, moose do not, so moose are spending their winters covered in tens of thousands of engorged ticks. These tick populations consume an astounding volume of blood, so calves and even adult moose are being effectively sucked dry.

To give the moose some credit, they do try to groom off their ticks by scratching and biting their own fur, rubbing on trees, etc. Those behaviors aren’t effective at tick removal, though, and instead the moose end up rubbing off their dark outer hairs, leaving behind just their pale, broken hair shafts and bald patches. As a result, “Ghost Moose” are running around New England forests in freezing winter temperatures wearing nothing but their skivvies, trying vainly to produce enough blood to keep their own machinery running.

We’d expect to find that are these tick-infested moose are dying, and that appears to be the case. Estimating moose population sizes is not particularly easy, but it looks like New England moose populations are declining in some states. Additionally, scientists have found high mortality rates in radio-collared moose, especially during the later spring months when ticks are heavily feeding. And when the fresh moose corpses are found, they’re covered in engorged winter ticks.

But winter ticks on moose were documented forever ago in places like southern Canada, so why are they suddenly an issue for moose in New England? Climate change. New England winters haven’t exactly been a walk in the park in the past decade or two, but winters have been getting shorter, and shorter winters are probably better for winter ticks. Here’s what people think is happening: first, substantial snow pack isn’t accumulating until much later in the season, which gives ticks more time to find and attach to a moose host before the vegetation and ticks are buried under the snow. And then that snow pack disappears earlier in the spring, which means that when engorged winter ticks bail off their moose hosts in the spring, the ticks have an easier time finding places to lay eggs.

There is a bunch of potentially interesting parasite ecology here – like, probably at least one PhD dissertation project to be had. If you’re interested, here are some books and articles about winter ticks and a moose that you should check out:

This paper.

This book.

This Boston Globe article.

This post about the Isle Royal moose population.


Parasite ecology papers May 2017

Hi, Folks! If you’re like me, you’re way behind on your reading goals for the year (#260papers), and your inbox is full of TOC emails that you’ve yet to open. I’m also way behind on my blogging goals, because constant dissertation writing and defense-talk-cartoon-making sucked my blog-post-writing urges dry. But I expect to revive in the near future, and until then, here’s a bunch of fun parasite ecology papers to read! Feel free to suggest any recent gems that I missed in the comments.

Buhnerkempe, M. G., Prager, K. C., Strelioff, C. C., Greig, D. J., Laake, J. L., Melin, S. R., DeLong, R. L., Gulland, F. M.D. and Lloyd-Smith, J. O. 2017. Detecting signals of chronic shedding to explain pathogen persistence: Leptospira interrogans in California sea lions. J Anim Ecol, 86: 460–472. doi:10.1111/1365-2656.12656
Frick, W. F., Cheng, T. L., Langwig, K. E., Hoyt, J. R., Janicki, A. F., Parise, K. L., Foster, J. T. and Kilpatrick, A. M. 2017. Pathogen dynamics during invasion and establishment of white-nose syndrome explain mechanisms of host persistence. Ecology, 98: 624–631. doi:10.1002/ecy.1706
Guzzetta, G., Tagliapietra, V., Perkins, S. E., Hauffe, H. C., Poletti, P., Merler, S. and Rizzoli, A. 2017. Population dynamics of wild rodents induce stochastic fadeouts of a zoonotic pathogen. J Anim Ecol, 86: 451–459. doi:10.1111/1365-2656.12653
Manlove, K. R., Cassirer, E. F., Plowright, R. K., Cross, P. C. and Hudson, P. J. 2017. Contact and contagion: Bighorn sheep demographic states vary in probability of transmission given contact. J Anim Ecol. doi:10.1111/1365-2656.12664
Pepin, K. M., Kay, S. L., Golas, B. D., Shriner, S. S., Gilbert, A. T., Miller, R. S., Graham, A. L., Riley, S., Cross, P. C., Samuel, M. D., Hooten, M. B., Hoeting, J. A., Lloyd-Smith, J. O., Webb, C. T. and Buhnerkempe, M. G. 2017. Inferring infection hazard in wildlife populations by linking data across individual and population scales. Ecol Lett, 20: 275–292. doi:10.1111/ele.12732
Stewart, T. E. and Schnitzer, S. A. 2017. Blurred lines between competition and parasitismBlurred lines between competition and parasitism. Biotropica. doi:10.1111/btp.12444
Wilber, M. Q., Johnson, P. T. J. and Briggs, C. J. 2017. When can we infer mechanism from parasite aggregation? A constraint-based approach to disease ecology. Ecology, 98: 688–702. doi:10.1002/ecy.1675

What is a vector?

Precise definitions are important in science, because I said so (and other better reasons). In parasite ecology, the tricky definitions that students often mix up are things like parasite versus parasitoid and microparasite versus macroparasite. In fact, at least 20 visitors per week happen upon this blog because they want look up one of those terms.

But it isn’t just students and the general public who struggle with tricky definitions in parasite ecology. Within the field, we can’t even agree on what to call our discipline! (Disease ecology? Parasitology? Epidemiology?) And it has recently come to my attention that a term that I thought had bullet-proof definition is somewhat controversial among parasite ecologists.

In an awesome special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B that just came out this month, there was a thought-provoking article entitled, “What is a vector?” The idea for the article came from a working group of the British Ecological Society’s ‘Parasites & Pathogens’ Special Interest Group, where participants unexpectedly found that they did not all use the same definition of “vector.” The article contained a whole list of possible definitions that the authors found in the literature, including this subset, which I have re-numbered for my own purposes:

Definition 1A: “Any organism (vertebrate or invertebrate) that functions as a carrier of an infectious agent between organisms of a different species.”

Definition 1B: “Any organism (vertebrate or invertebrate) or inanimate object (i.e., fomite) that functions as a carrier of an infectious agent between organisms.”

Definition 2: “Any organism that can transmit infectious diseases between humans or from animals to humans.”

Definition 3A: “Hosts that transmit a pathogen while feeding non-lethally upon the internal fluids of another host.”

Definition 3B: “Blood-feeding arthropods such as mosquitoes, ticks, sandflies, tsetse flies and biting midges that transmit a pathogen while feeding non-lethally upon the internal fluids of another host.”

I couldn’t believe that parasite ecologists differed so much with their working definitions, so I put them into a poll, and then I asked you guys to tell me which definitions you use. (Thanks for your participation!) To my great surprise, your answers were all over the place! No one really used Definition 2 (the “anthropocentric” definition), but all of the other definitions received some support. As of 21 March, the most popular definition was 1A, and 1A+B were more popular than 3A+B.

Wilson et al. (2017) do a great job of discussing the pros and cons of each definition, and they also take a stab at a possible mathematical definition (the “sequential” definition), so I’d recommend giving their paper a read for a lot more coverage than you’re going to get here. I’m just going to cover two points that were surprising to me.

First surprise: I did not expect that so many people would prefer 1B over 1A, because I don’t like including fomites in the definition of a vector. My primary reason for preferring IA is that we already have a term for inanimate objects that transmit infectious agents (i.e., fomites). Wilson et al. (2017) provide a good discussion on the utility of thinking about some fomites (e.g., drug needles) in pseudo-biological terms that would normally apply to vectors. But I think that I’d still prefer to call things like needles “fomites,” even if it’s helpful to think of their parallels with living vectors.

Second surprise: I did not expect that so many people would prefer 1A+B to 3A+B. As Wilson et al. (2017) discuss, the 1A+B definitions are broad; for instance, the wording suggests that we include intermediate hosts (i.e., snails infected by trematodes) as vectors! It also suggests that any host capable of interspecific transmission could be a vector. 

In the end,Wilson et al. (2017) suggested that parasite ecologists think carefully about their definitions of the term “vector,” and then they scored a closing home run with, “all vector definitions are wrong, but some are (we hope) useful.” WOMP WOMP.

Give the paper a read, and share your thoughts in the comments!


Wilson, A. J., E. R. Morgan, M. Booth, R. Norman, S. E. Perkins, H. C. Hauffe, N. Mideo, J. Antonovics, H. McCallum, and A. Fenton. 2017. What is a vector? Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 372:20160085.