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!

Advice on how to become a successful parasite ecologist, Part II: Pieter Johnson

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. Last week, we heard from Dr. Armand Kuris from the University of California Santa Barbara. This week, we have some great advice from Dr. Pieter Johnson from the University of Colorado Boulder.

Who is Pieter Johnson?

When you read cool papers as a new student, it’s often hard to imagine the authors as real people instead of superheroes. So I will begin with a story about the Clark Kent version of Piet Johnson. In 2015, I met Piet for the first time. I’d actually talked to him twice before via email – once when I was an undergrad, and once when he emailed the anonymously-written Parasite Ecology blog – and he was so nice via email that I wasn’t particularly anxious about introducing myself at ESA. At least, I wasn’t anxious until he said in a ponderous voice, “Ahhh, I’ve been waiting to meet you.” Apparently my secret identity wasn’t as secret as I thought… but I digress.

After a brief chat, several freshwater ecologists – including Piet and myself – headed to a dive bar for some evening festivities. In fact, the bar was called The Dive Bar, and it housed a huge aquarium full of fish and a real live mermaid that periodically swam into view and blew kisses to the patrons. That’s where I learned that Piet is an enthusiastic and highly driven ecologist. He was fueled by scientific passion (and perhaps a dare) to go study mermaid ecology. Mermaids are known to be quite dangerous, so he prudently decided to get in the mermaid tank to study the habitat while the mermaid wasn’t present. And then he left to go do just that, taking nothing but a somewhat hastily concocted research plan. Coincidentally, a large red light began flashing behind the bar moments later, and Piet returned shortly after to report that you need special permits to study the endangered mermaid, and alas, he did not have such a permit.

And now for the superhero story. When he isn’t crashing mermaid parties, Dr. Johnson is busy being a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. His graduate students and postdocs have gone on to be successful parasite ecologists, and Piet is one of the best examples of productivity and success in the field of parasite ecology. In fact, he’s one of the most prolific parasite ecologists of the 21st century. He’s published 125 papers, some of which you can find summarized on this blog (here, here, here, and here). And his very first paper, which he submitted as an undergraduate, was published in Science.

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So, without further ado, here’s his take on how to become a successful parasite ecologist.

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

“Since the early 1990s. I study the role of parasites and pathogens in ecological communities and ecosystems. In its simplest essence, I’m often interested in what a world without parasites would look like – how would things be different? I’m biased in favor of freshwater systems, which have historically been a very rich arena for research on community and ecosystem ecology, even if the contributions of parasites were not always broadly considered by ecologists. Our group tries to bring a broad range of perspectives and approaches to this question, with particular emphasis on linking large-scale empirical datasets with experiments and theory.”

How did you get into parasite ecology?

“Through the back door. I’m primarily an ecologist who became interested in parasites and what they were doing. When I was a student, a lot of ecology textbooks barely mentioned parasites in deference to other ecological interactions such as competition and predation. The perception was that parasites and disease were more in the realm of veterinary science, parasitology, and epidemiology rather than core components of ecology. When I first started investigating frog deformities I kept on noticing what I would later learn were parasite cysts while examining animals under the microscope. At the time, it was difficult to find knowledgeable collaborators or faculty, and so I ended up spending a lot of time with textbooks and primary literature that eventually got me hooked on parasites. From my background in ecology, it was quickly apparent that there were many rich opportunities to better integrate research between ecology and parasitology/disease biology.”

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

“That’s a tough one. I think I look for that right balance between someone who is a big picture thinker but can also get a project finished. Someone who is passionate about scientific questions but has a healthy respect for data and what goes into collecting it – i.e., why details matter. I also look for someone who would mesh well with the current lab group and be fun to work with (after all, graduate school can last a while!). Sense of humor can help here. I therefore rely heavily on the assessments of my current and former graduate students when interviewing a candidate.”

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

“Working in disease ecology is challenging because it really requires that you master multiple fields of study, often demanding that you keep on top of literatures such as ecology, parasitology, epidemiology and aspects of veterinary science. This is also what makes it interesting and creates the potential to market yourself to multiple audiences, job opportunities, journals, etc. With this in mind, I think it’s essential to begin developing your own network early, reaching out to collaborate with other scientists, attend (and present) at diverse conferences, and in general to talk about your research (which will force you to refine it with others’ feedback). Second, I tend to emphasize the ‘learn by doing’ model – while it’s great to continue thinking, reading and refining, start a project early even if it’s not your magnum opus. Same goes with publishing – start early and learn to enjoy it as a major forum of communication. No one is born a good scientific writer so there’s really only one way to practice. And finally, take your ideas seriously. Most projects fail, but we often come up with better ideas while watching our initial project go down in flames. Write those ideas down (or the ones that come to you when you’re supposed to be doing something else) and, as the sting of your failed project fades, throw yourself into Plan B. Or Plan C… While science is often portrayed as an elegant, formalized test of pre-conceived hypotheses, much of it is iterative, messy, and opportunistic — being ready to recognize those opportunities is invaluable.”

That’s a lot of excellent advice! If you want to know more, I’d recommend finding Piet at a conference – maybe you can go study mermaids together!

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.

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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.

Killing parasites and finding jobs that let you collect and kill parasites

I decided not to pre-write a post for today so that I would have to find something cool at ASP 2016 to blog about. I shouldn’t be surprised, but I actually found way too much cool stuff to blog about, and then I couldn’t decide what to focus on. In the end, I just picked the two topics that I thought would be most broadly interesting to folks who couldn’t attend ASP 2016, and you’ll just have to wonder about all of the other stuff that you missed. Stay tuned next week to find out who won the Unofficial ASP 2016 Parasite Ecology Contest! Spoiler: IT IS GOING TO BE A TOUGH DECISION.

Parasite eradication

This year, the President’s Symposium and the Eminent Parasitologist Lecture were combined in one session, whose theme was “Magic Bullets and Windows of Opportunity.”

Our very own Nobel laureate, Dr. Bill Campbell, pointed out that while we have many emerging infectious diseases, we also have some “submerging” infectious diseases as the result of disease eradication efforts. But he eloquently argued that we’re not very good at identifying good anti-parasite drugs using theory, so we’re not going to get any more submerging parasites unless we embrace the humiliation of trial and error and commit to empirical drug screening. He doesn’t think that academics should be doing the drug screening, though. Drug screening should be something that pharmaceutical companies do – not because someone tells them to, but because it can be highly successful ($$$). There’s also another perk: finding good drugs can turn you into a Nobel laureate who gets to sit beside a princess at dinner.

After Bill, Jane Carlton and Frank Richards talked about the possibilities of eliminating or eradicating malaria, leishmaniasis, and onchocerciasis. These diseases disproportionately burden impoverished peoples. Even though I knew that already, Jill said something that really surprised me and illustrated the burden of these parasites in a new, tangible way: the average Indian household spends 3% of their income on mosquito repellents/control. 3% of their income! Calculate 3% of your income and imagine losing that to mosquito control. You know what I spend 3% of my income on? Electricity.

Obviously, if the mosquito repellent/control techniques work, 3% of an income might be much smaller price to pay than terrible morbidity or mortality associated with malaria. But worryingly, the efficacies of the repellents and control methods aren’t very well studied, so people may be wasting their money on these remedies. This is sadly reminiscent of the scene in Harry Potter where people are so frantic for any protection against Voldemort and the Death Eaters that they buy useless amulets and potions that from shady dealers like Mundungus. So it appears that we need an Arthur Weasley (Head of the Office for the Detection and Confiscation of Counterfeit Defensive Spells and Protective Objects) for mosquito repellent, to ensure that already disproportionately burdened peoples aren’t losing 3% of their incomes to useless junk.

Parasitology Careers Outside of Academia

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the potentially not-awesome prospects of getting a job in academia as a parasitologist. Few academic job ads contain the word “parasitologist,” and disease ecologists appear to have more options. What about the odds of getting a job outside of academia as a parasitologist? Kym Jacobson (NWFSC), Kevin Lafferty (USGS), and Timothy Geary shared their (awesome) insights in a special session Tuesday afternoon.

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.

Good luck job hunting!