Updated: Dec 12, 2018
Written by John Janovy, Jr.
Edited by Margaret Doolin
In the spring of 1966, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) hired two parasitologists. One, Brent Nickol, was considered a replacement for the recently-retired Harold Manter and was given Manter’s old office/lab in Bessey Hall: two small rooms, one of them containing H. B. Ward’s desk and chair. I was the second, a replacement for Benjamin McCashland, a protozoologist who had moved into a graduate dean’s position. When I gave my interview seminar on physiological changes during morphological transformation in Leishmania donovani – based on my post-doc research at Rutgers – evidently nobody in the audience understood that I was also a parasitologist. As soon as Brent and I discovered that we were kindred spirits, we started driving the gravel roads of Lancaster County, looking for collecting sites, stopping at local taverns, and talking about our field experiences – his in Louisiana working on helminths of birds and mine in the Cheyenne Bottoms of central Kansas, working on avian malaria. For almost a decade we bemoaned the fact that our university had no field station, but that problem was solved by a student’s comment in the spring of 1974.
Three UNL departments – Zoology, Botany, and Microbiology – were merged into a School of Life Sciences in 1973, and as you can well imagine, internal political stress quickly reached a boiling point. The interim director of this school was a limnologist, Gary Hergenrader, who routinely escaped Lincoln and took his students on trips into the western Nebraska Sandhills. The Sandhills are an hypnotic landscape containing wetlands and lakes with enough chemical and biological diversity to sustain a lifetime’s research. On one of these trips, they took a shortcut, leaving Interstate 80 at Roscoe, Nebraska, taking the Roscoe-Keystone road, and turning west at Keystone on their way to Lewellen and the Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge. A couple of miles west of Keystone, one of the students in Gary’s car commented on a group of buildings they could see across Lake Ogallala (the borrow pit for Kingsley Dam, which impounded the massive Lake McConaughy). Those dozen words from a student started some wheels in motion.
Having done his doctoral research at Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin, Hergenrader was also a part of our field station conversations, so was curious about the buildings. Nestled into canyons along what had been the North Platte River prior to construction of Kingsley Dam, they looked like an ideal place for a biological station. When he returned to Lincoln, Gary made some inquiries, discovered that the buildings were a recently abandoned Girl Scout facility – the Cedar Point Camp – and immediately began serious negotiations with camp trustees to use the facility. By the fall of 1974, these negotiations had produced a five-year lease and some faculty members willing to teach at what we started calling the Cedar Point Biological Station (CPBS).
The first summer of CPBS was in 1975. There were two sessions, each consisting of three five-week classes. The first session courses were Helminthology (Brent Nickol), Ichthyology (John Lynch), and Protozoology (Janovy). Classes met two days a week, so students could take two courses, spending four days a week in the field and lab and three days a week working on their individual projects. Protozoology was Monday and Thursday. Sometime during that first week of CPBS, Lynch took his class to the South Platte River where they seined fish, started learning field identification, and deciding on their projects. Two students – Mike McCarty and Rick Goble – were also in my Protozoology course. They returned from their first Ichthyology field trip with a question: What are these white things on the gills of this fish? I answered that they looked like myxozoan cysts (which they turned out to be), then for some unknown reason, I asked them to hold the fish so I could take their picture. This first Fundulus zebrinus (then called Fundulus kansae, and pictured, below), along with Mike and Rick’s question, inspired nearly forty years of research on the parasites of small fishes.
One of my grad students, Steve Knight, was also at CPBS that summer, and we routinely adjourned to either the White Gate at the CPBS entrance, or the Sip ‘n’ Sizzle in town for discussion and a beer. Just as routinely, these discussions involved potential projects. Thanks to Crofton’s 1971 paper (A quantitative approach to parasitism. Parasitology 62:179-193), the mid-1970s were a time in which the distribution of parasites among host populations was a topic of fairly intense interest, and at some point we ended up asking ourselves whether those myxozoan cysts were distributed among F. zebrinus populations in a manner that could be described by a negative binomial model. We started collecting, dissecting, and counting.
The parasite turned out to be Myxobolus funduli (Myxosoma funduli at the time). The South Platte River was notorious for its variable streamflow, and during our discussions we wondered how this variability in transmission environment would affect parasite distribution in the host population. Steve and I focused on Myxobolus funduli, but as we dissected fish, month after month – including some winter days when we drove 285 miles to Ogallala, Nebraska, seined fish, built a fire in the CPBS lodge and set up microscopes nearby to stay warm – we marveled at the other parasites in and on this fish species.
Then one day in the late 1970s I did what all faculty members were expected to do at the time, namely, go down to our advising center and meet students for two hours a semester. I was sitting in that room waiting for my next appointment when in walked Ann Adams.
“I’m an engineering major,” she said, “but my mom wants me to be a doctor.” Then she added, “All I really want to do is go watch whales.”
“Have I got a deal for you,” I replied. “Come to Cedar Point, study the parasites of fish, and we’ll find a way to get you where you want to be.”
Ann was the first person to study the whole community of parasites in and on F. zebrinus in the South Platte River. Two years after that advising center interview she received her Master’s Degree and left for Seattle to pursue doctoral work under the guidance of Robert Rausch. She eventually ended up director of the FDA lab in Kansas City. After she left UNL, I picked up Ann’s work and continued collecting F. zebrinus in the South Platte River at Roscoe, NE, where the local rancher had given us a key to his property, and thus easy access to the river. Along the way, a number of students, both undergrad and graduate, did projects on the parasites of small fishes in rivers and streams across the Great Plains. Those former students are now mainly physicians, other health care professionals, one officer at CDC, and profs at other universities where they have pursued their own research interests, typically having little or nothing to do with fish.
The nearly forty years of work inspired by that initial question from Mike McCarty and Rick Goble led to twenty-four papers, many of them in The Journal of Parasitology. When I was a graduate student, my doctoral adviser, J. Teague Self at the University of Oklahoma, told me that the greatest reward of an academic career would be the success of my students, and he was correct. I honestly believe that the challenges of studying any host-parasite system, especially in the field, produces transferable skills that cannot be acquired by any other means. I cannot thank all those former students enough for coming up with questions and making a commitment to seek answers. In retrospect, however, I can truthfully say that the smartest thing I ever did in parasitology was get the hell out of their way, let ‘em work, and watch what happened as a result!