By Joanna J. Cielocha
The Southwestern Association of Parasitologists (SWAP) holds their annual meeting every April at the University of Oklahoma Biological Station (UOBS). This past April marked the 52nd annual meeting. I attended my first SWAP in 2005 as an undergraduate in Rich Clopton’s lab at Peru State College. The presentation was entitled “Taxonomic Stability of Gregarine Species Infecting Tropical Cockroaches: Recognition of the Leidyana Complex.” We won’t go into details about that presentation—it didn’t go well on my end—but it opened a door that led me on my career path. I was unaware that this first trip to SWAP would become an annual event that I looked forward to throughout graduate school and now anticipate each spring as a professor.
Like many undergraduates interested in science, I assumed I would go into a career in the medical field following graduation. However, most undergraduates don’t take every biology course from a parasitologist. During my time at Peru, there were three biology professors—all of whom are parasitologists: Rich Clopton (taxonomy and systematics of gregarines), Mike Barger (ecology of fish helminths), and John Hnida (taxonomy of rodent and reptile coccidia). Needless to say, I was being trained to be a parasitologist even before I realized parasitologist was a “career option.”
At that time, the entire department would load up their research students in one or two 12 passenger vans and hit the road—usually US Hwy 75 south—to SWAP. We would leave on Wednesday, the day before the meeting, and spend the night in a hotel in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. We would meet other parasitologists at this hotel—Scott Snyder and Kirsten Jensen were there with their students my first year. It is my understanding that one of the reasons for this stop over was for Scott to collect turtle parasites. The next morning, we would load up and head south on the Indian Nation Turnpike in order to roll into the UOBS ahead of anyone else. We had to arrive early because John was the Secretary-Treasurer and in charge of registration.
This road trip also included various stories of my mentor’s previous trips to SWAP. It turns out, I had stepped into a long line of parasitologists with strong ties to this meeting. Both Rich & Mike attended the University of Nebraska and worked for eminent parasitologists, John Janovy, Jr. and Brent Nickol, respectively. And John Hnida was a student of Don Duszynski (University of New Mexico). Looking back at the History of SWAP document, it is obvious that Janovy, Nickol, and Duszynski have been attending SWAP since at least the early 1980s, though I suspect they all attended much earlier than that; Janovy is listed as a member of the Teller’s Committee at the 9th annual meeting in 1976 and was a graduate student of J.T. Self, who was one of the inaugural members of SWAP in 1968 . Needless to say, there were innumerable stories to be told and memories to reminisce. For example, I have heard often of road trips to SWAP which involved fossil collecting and stops at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.
During my senior year at Peru I realized I would rather go to graduate school and study parasites than any other possible alternative. Through working with Rich and attending SWAP I had met Tami Cook and even had the opportunity to work in her lab on various collecting trips as an undergraduate. Following graduation from Peru, I packed my car and drove south along that same path to the UOBS, and on to Huntsville, TX for a two-year stint as a masters student in the Cook lab at Sam Houston State University (SHSU). Once again, during April we would load up the school vans and hit the road to Oklahoma, but this time northward along I-35. This was a much shorter trip, but once again we were the first to arrive (and last to leave). John Hnida had handed off the secretarial duties to Jerry Cook, an entomologist at SHSU who happens to work on an elusive group of parasitic insects, the Strepsiptera. While those drives were much shorter, there was still plenty of time to recall past trips to SWAP. Tami was a former Janovy student as well and had plenty of stories about her own graduate school experiences and trips to SWAP; there may have been a bit of competition between the Nebraska Parasitology graduate students in those days.
It was also during this time that I realized the importance of SWAP being on the Oklahoma-Texas border. In the early 2000s, Oklahoma still had antiquated beer laws which restricted the sale of “strong beer” (>3.2% alcohol). After dropping off our stuff and leaving Jerry behind, we would head back across the Texas border on a beer run for the president’s reception. Apparently parasitologists balk at 3.2% alcohol beer. [Note: As of October 2018, Oklahoma now allows for the sale of refrigerated “strong beer” anywhere with a liquor license.]
Soon after entering Tami’s lab, it had become apparent that a two year master’s program goes by pretty fast. I had nearly completed my first year, as it was now April and I needed to start considering where I might be heading for a Ph.D. I had met Kirsten Jensen at SWAP numerous times by this point. At the 2008 meeting though, Kirsten gave a mind-blowingly fascinating presentation on her work in the Gulf of Mexico on larval and adult tapeworms. I mean, if you haven’t had the opportunity to see SEM images of elasmobranch tapeworms, you don’t know what you are missing—they would likely entice anyone into wanting to do a Ph.D. on this incredibly diverse group of parasites. I’m sure it was at that meeting that I approached Kirsten to see if she would be willing to accept me as a doctoral student.
So it was settled, after defending my master’s thesis, I packed up and moved back north to Kansas and began working on elasmobranch tapeworms in the lab of Kirsten Jensen. I spent five years in Kirsten’s lab. While Kirsten was not a Nebraska native, she was a former graduate student of Janine Caira (University of Connecticut), a UNL alumna mentored by Mary Lou Pritchard. While this might seem a bit tangential, it was absolutely critical to the conversation we had on the road trips from Lawrence to UOBS each spring. Each year undergraduate and master’s students would accompany Kirsten and I on the trip. And each year, we would go through the elasmobranch-cestode family lineage, which of courses goes back to Janine. We would then discuss additional players—the aunts and uncles or maybe the step-cousins—in the family-tree. I never tired of these conversations. Often the return trips to Lawrence were a bit more fast-paced. Multiple times we raced the weather home, constantly watching the radar to see if we could outrun impending tornados. Though there was almost always time for a quick stop in Guthrie, OK and Braum’s to get ice cream.
My fifth year in Lawrence, SWAP was held the week after I defended my dissertation; a welcomed relief. But it was also a time of stress and anxiety as I was on the job market. A few weeks after SWAP 2013 I interviewed for my first Assistant Professor Position. This turned out to be a life-changing experience as that fall I began my first faculty position at none other than Peru State College. I joined three other parasitologists; while I’m not entirely sure this is true, we may have been the only biology department in the United States in which all undergraduates were taught by parasitologists! It was an eventful three years of attempting to get my feet under me while writing lecture after lecture, trying to start a research program, and also navigating academia as a junior faculty member. After three years at Peru, I came to a fork in the road and ultimately ended up leaving for a second assistant professor position at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri. Again, the first couple of years were tough—I don’t wish being a new professor on anyone, especially someone with a heavy teaching load and new babies; but twice…whew!
SWAP 2019 marked a milestone in my career. It was the first time in 6 years in which I felt like I could breathe. There were no more brand-new courses to write lectures for from scratch. I had reached a point in the rocky early years of professorship in which I could do science every week, rather than just barely squeeze in a little bit of lab work here or there. My students had worked incredibly hard and made mentoring them a true pleasure. They worked through their projects and many revisions to prepare their presentations. Ultimately, three undergraduate students accompanied me on their first road trip to SWAP. We packed up my van and took the same old road south to UOBS. We stopped at Braum’s for ice cream (and lunch) and rolled into the UOBS right about supper time. I told them about traditions from various labs, such as fossil collecting and the Cowboy Museum visits. I told them about the long history of my SWAP lineage. The meeting was a complete success. More than 20 students—undergraduate and graduate—gave oral or poster presentations. Old friends reminisced, a few fossils were collected, and parasitology once more took center stage at UOBS. After an incredibly rewarding and successful meeting, we packed up the van and returned to Kansas City. We took a different route home—a new road—just for a change of scenery. I guess it’s not the road we take, but the destination that matters.