Updated: Apr 23
This month Abigail Kimball interviews Dr. Anne Vardo-Zalik. Dr. VZ is an Associate Professor of Biology at Penn State York, where she studies lizard malaria and mentors an awesome team of undergraduate students.
What drew you to parasitology in particular?
It was serendipity, really. I was first introduced to parasites during a lecture in my invertebrate zoology class at Roger Williams University, sophomore year. But it wasn’t until my senior year, final semester, when I truly gained an appreciation for parasites. I needed to take one more upper-level biology class and the only one that fit my schedule was Animal Parasitology, taught by Dr. Ronald Campbell at Umass Dartmouth (I had transferred there my junior year). I did not want to take this class. Why not? Because I saw countless students pacing and studying, pouring hours and hours over notecard piles 6 inches thick…. I was afraid the content wouldn’t be captivating enough for that amount of work. But the first week of class proved me wrong. Dr. Campbell put up the malaria life cycle one day and I was hooked. Seriously. I became like an eager 5-year old, asking: But why? How? Why? The fact that such a small organism had evolved this intricate and complex life cycle just completely made me stop in my tracks and start reading, and studying, and pouring over notecard piles 6-inches thick…happily! I then continued studying under Dr. Campbell for a Master’s degree. When I entered the Ph.D program at UVM, I took a second parasitology class taught by my mentor Dr. Joseph Schall and in that class, I learned how to blend traditional parasitology (i.e life cycles and identification) and ecological frameworks (life history trait evolution, host behavior, evolution of virulence, etc.). I was able to really see how parasites were connected to much more than just disease and I have never looked back.
Do you prefer field work or laboratory work?
For me it has to be a mix of both. I think being trained in the lab allows you to address an interesting set of questions that field work alone cannot answer, and vice versa. I also think that working in the field trains you to always expect the unexpected- and to be a good developer of plan B, plan C, plan D… etc. Being able to perform my own field research was key to deciding where to obtain my Ph.D. Once I met with Dr. Joseph Schall at UVM, and learned about fence lizards and malaria, I was hooked. Now, my focus is to give undergraduate students a similar experience. I want them to get the rush of capturing their first lizard in the field and then working with their samples for analysis in the lab.
Any funny stories from the field?
Well this past summer, I was in CA with two undergraduates sampling lizards for our lizard malaria projects and we locked the keys in the van. It was late on a Friday afternoon and we were at the field site furthest from the field office. Even so, there were no spare keys available at the field office. I never thought I’d teach my students how to ‘safely’ break into a car, but thank goodness for loose windows and skinny arms…
What is the best way to promote positive laboratory culture? Does your lab have any fun traditions?
We always go on outings together after each meeting. I see attending scientific meetings with my students as a bonding experience where we not only learn how to present our work together and interact with other amazing scientists, but also where we get to learn more about each other and focus on having a good time together. Last summer, we went axe-throwing after a conference in State College, PA. We also have lab-dinners and potlucks throughout the year when possible. To me, these students are a big part of my life- they are my second family and I enjoy spending time with them outside of the research lab.
What is your philosophy when it comes to guiding undergraduates through their research experience?
I purposefully chose to teach at an undergraduate only campus because I think undergraduates need the push to get into research early on in their careers. This is the best way to keep students engaged in scientific research and to see the viability of that as a career choice. I love working with undergraduates because I get to see that first spark: The first time an experiment works for them; the first time that they get a question from a leading scientist in the field at a meeting; the first time an experiment fails (which, let’s face it, in science everyone fails, a lot!). And I get to be there to help them push through. Students need to be engaged in what they are learning, which means they need engaged teachers. They need researchers who make them laugh, who show them the good, the bad, the difficult, and still show up everyday to tackle the job at hand. What I enjoy most about the experience is that when a student signs up to work with me, we are working together, every step of the way. We learn from each other- we are each actively engaged in the experimental process and we each grow from the experience. I make sure that the students working with me know that I value their contributions and hard work. We are a team.
You seem to be very passionate about teaching! What are some core principles of your pedagogic method?
I honestly rely 110% on enthusiasm for the subject matter. No matter how fascinating or groundbreaking a topic may be, if you do not present that material in a way that the students can relate, it won’t matter. Connecting material to their lives, grossing them out, accidentally letting my crazy Boston accent slip because I get so excited, these are all ways that break up a normal lecture. I want students to be excited about material and go home and tell their family/friends what they have learned.
If you weren’t a parasitologist what career would you have pursued instead?
OMG, I have like three: I always wanted to be a marine biologist (BS and MS in marine biology), but my extreme sea sickness would prevent me from living out my dream of being a real life “Matt Hooper” from Jaws, studying great white sharks out at sea. I also love musical theater and wanted, for a very long time, to be on Broadway. Finally, I have a passion for true crime, and becoming an FBI profiler was also a career I was considering.