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ASP Member Spotlight: Dra. Ma. Leopoldina Aquirre-Macedo

by Maggie Doolin (PhD Student, University of Utah)

Dra. Ma. Leopoldina Aquirre-Macedo is our first member from outside of the United States to be highlighted in a spotlight! She works in the Marine Resources department of the Center for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute (CINVESTAV) in Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico, where she teaches graduate courses and researches marine parasite fauna in the Gulf of Mexico. Dra. Aguirre-Macedo has broad research interests, and is especially interested in the effects of climate change and invasive species on parasite transmission. Her current work is supported by a large collaborative grant from the National Council of Science and Technology (CONACyT) to establish a biological and ecological baseline on the deep Gulf of Mexico, for which she is contributing her parasitic expertise. In the following interview, we learn a bit about her path in parasitology and touch on her research on cephalopod parasites.

How did you get your start in parasitology? Did you fall into it, or did you always know that you wanted to study parasites?

I fell into it!! It was during my invertebrate metazoans course, when the teacher sent us to do a literature research on any of the Platyhelminthes; I chose to do mine on Fasciola hepatica. I became fascinated by the worm itself, its morphology, life cycle, relevance for sheep and cattle production, and as a zoonotic infection. For the following semester I enrolled in the elective parasitology course, then as volunteer in the helminthology lab of the Institute of Biology at UNAM with a solid group of taxonomists, then I did my bachelor’s thesis in taxonomy of metacercarial stages of digeneans infecting fishes. By the time of my Master’s and Ph.D. I was already deeply involved with digenean and companion parasites!

Very cool. It’s inspiring to hear that you pursued your interests so thoroughly at that age and found such a rewarding career. I noticed that you’ve traveled quite a lot for educational and work opportunities. How have travel and collaboration figured into your career?

I think I’ve been lucky. To start, I did my Ph.D. in the UK with parasite ecologist Clive Kennedy. That gave me the opportunity to meet many of the European parasitologists, some of whom I still have very close contact and collaborations with. These collaborations took me to Central America with my Czech colleagues. Then when I was back in Mexico I joined ASP and met Armand Kuris’ and Gerry Esch’s groups, with whom I have since had a lot of collaboration, especially several joint projects with Armand, Kevin and Armand’s former student Mark Torchin. These relationships provided opportunity for them to come visit us in Mexico and for us to do a sabbatical at UC Santa Barbara nearly 10 years ago. Over time we have worked on parasites from Mexico, Panama and Palmyra Atoll. l‘ve also had the opportunity to collaborate with John Holmes, Piet Johnson and Dave Marcogliese, who came to Mexico to give courses for our students or collect Mexico-specific data, so the collaborations have also benefitted our students.

That’s great. It seems like ASP has played a positive role in your development as a parasitologist. Would you agree?

Yes, thanks to the society meetings I’ve been able to meet people that have helped me grow as a scientist and also as a person. I have always found criticism of my work through the society, and that has been good.

Glad to hear it. Go ASP! Now, for the part I’ve been waiting to ask about…cephalopod parasites! I’m going to focus on your work on parasites of Octopus maya, the Mexican four-eyed octopus. You recently published the first comprehensive parasite survey that has ever been done on O. maya even though it is an economically important host. How did you come to study this system?

Prochristianella hispida. Photo from the Aquatic Pathology lab at CINVESTAV.

Octopus maya, is one of the most important fisheries in Yucatan and at some point their catches were going down, so the fishery authorities wanted to know what was happening. So, they put money for a large project together with the State of Yucatan Research Council and CONACyT to assess the problem. For this purpose, we put together the parasitology group at the Yucatán University (UADY) and the fisheries groups of both CINVESTAV and UNAM and our parasitology lab. We managed to catch octopuses from all the possible locations around the Peninsula in collaboration with fishermen of the different areas and had students and technicians searching for parasites. The idea was to investigate as much as possible of the octopus biology, ecology, behavior, etc., as well as their parasites and possible diseases. It was great teamwork. We found straight away 22 morpho-especies (one protozoo, 8 cestodes, 8 digeneans, 4 nematodes and one copepod. Cestodes were the most frequent particularly one infecting the buccal mass, we collected hundreds from a single host. So we decide to do some histology on that organ to see its pathology. It was amazing, all the tissue was cestodes!!!

What is the status of cephalopod parasitology these days?

Prochristianella hispida. Photo from the Aquatic Pathology lab at CINVESTAV.

I was quite surprised about the shortage of information. In most places the studies have been focused on parasites that are conspicuous for fishermen (usually a visible injury), or those that are a potential threat for aquaculture production (mostly protozoans), and only a few records of isolated findings for particular metazoans from here and there exist. Despite this, I think more people are getting interested in the subject, although most of the recent papers are reviews and not proper field studies. Getting into a new subject is not easy at the beginning, especially because you haven’t much to compare with, but it definitely is always exciting and challenging! We still do work with octopuses at the lab, and we are solving some taxonomic issues now with the aid of molecular tools. We are also noticing changes in parasite species composition in octopus collected from different depths.

Mexican parasitologists have been such a driving force in parasite taxonomy and systematics. What do you think of the outlook for parasitology research in Mexico?

We need to keep doing it!!! Mexico is a country of megadiversity, and there is still too much to do! Now with the aid of molecular tools, taxonomy should be more accurate, although it can also be hard work, especially when morphology says one thing and molecular results say something different.

Do you have advice for young parasitologists?

I recommend working hard, taking every single opportunity to learn, and to publish!! Young parasitologists should keep reading and follow their passion because it is always worthy and rewarding!!

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