Interview by Susan Perkins
For our newest Member Spotlight we feature ASP's student representative, Christina Anaya!
1. What made you decide to get a Ph.D. in parasitology? And then, what made you choose to work on nematomorphs? How did you begin studying Nematomorphs? Why a Ph.D.?
That’s both and interesting and embarrassing story. During the first year of my master’s, I was without a project and advisor. The stress of it all led me to a short-lived stint of smoking (a habit from years ago). One winter day in California, it was raining, and I was in the backyard hiding my bad habit from my son. I saw something swimming, serpent-like in the rain filling my planters. Being a biologist, I was curious, so I picked it up but had no idea what it was. I googled “spaghetti-like worm” and the Hairworm Biodiversity Survey website came up and these researchers were asking the public to send in worms. I sent the worm in as they asked, and it turned out to be a new species. A few months later (and after taking parasitology), I decided I would study hairworms at my school in California. The hairworm researcher I found online turned out to be Ben Hanelt, who so graciously trained me in his lab to rear hairworms, advised me from afar, and encouraged me to attend my first ASP conference in Richmond, VA in 2012, where I was introduced to Matt Bolek. Nematomorphs are exciting because there is so little research in all aspects of their biology and ecology. I enjoy creating and organizing and the idea of bringing new information to the Nematomorph realm led me to my Ph.D. (with friendly nudges by Matt and Ben). I have never regretted it because it has led to so many opportunities including living in Iceland for a year. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I wasn’t smoking! By the way, I have never smoked again. You can read more about my research here: http://canaya19.wixsite.com/hairwormproject
2. You’ve been spending the past year in Iceland looking for new species of nematomorphs. First, why Iceland? Second, what has that experience been like? What has surprised you/frustrated you/amazed you (you pick depending on what you want to share).
In 2013, I saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty which was mostly filmed in Iceland and I thought, “I’d like to go there someday”. In 2016 a had to get a passport to attend ASP in Canada. That same year, with a blank passport and an advertisement for Fulbright I thought, where would I go? Iceland! My literature search revealed no hairworms had been described from Iceland before. However, because this would be an exploratory hairworm survey, I needed to design a bigger project for the nationally competitive fellowship. I proposed “Freshwater and Marine Snails as Parasite Biodiversity Indicators in Iceland” – that way I could look for hairworm cysts in snails while doing a broad project. The project was bold, looking at the distribution of parasites in snails as baseline data for future climate research so I traveled extensively throughout Iceland. Sure enough, I found hairworms and several trematodes. The experience was extraordinary, and I am applying for a 3-year postdoc as soon as I graduate so that I can go back. I was amazed by the landscape, the weather, and all the traditions of Iceland. Academic life in Iceland was a surprise to me because there is less pressure than what we have in the U.S. The universities are small, professors are well-paid (tenured professors get an extra $700-800 every time they publish - first or last author, doesn’t matter!), and teach few classes if any. During my stay in Iceland, for the first time as a graduate student, I did not have to teach or take classes. This left a lot of time to explore and write. By the way, you can read about some of my exploits at www.anamericanscientistiniceland.com and see some amazing landscapes on Instagram @your_daily_iceland
3. Parasites are everywhere, but we certainly haven’t looked for them everywhere – what are some other places you’d like to sample or think other parasitologists should consider?
There is so much Arctic Parasitology to be done, particularly in the wake of global warming so I can’t imagine sampling anywhere but there. The Fulbright changed the trajectory of my career and has allowed me to find my niche in parasitology. I think the possibilities are endless for parasitologists—particularly because so many disciplines don’t always include parasites in the big ecological picture even though parasites are everywhere and in everything. We all have an opportunity to change this.
4. You’ve been the ASP Student Representative this past year. What have you learned from serving the Society in this way?
I am only a few months in but I this position has encouraged me to talk to more members and learn about their areas of expertise. This can, and has, led to numerous opportunities. Now my goal is to figure out how to transfer this information to our student members so that they can take advantage of the fabulous people that can potentially be new mentors, advisors, or just give great advice. In the past, I have served as a student representative for the western section of the Wildlife Society. What I have learned is that although our society is smaller, we can connect in ways that larger societies cannot. For example, a smaller society means we can foster better relationships and interact with our student members to give them insight into their future careers as parasitologists.