Deep Studies Into Parasitology … Very, Very … Deep Studies …
Original interview questions for Member Spotlight series by Abigail Kimball.
Question updates by Kelly Weinersmith.
Dr. Chuck Blend is a Professor & Resident Scholar at the Corpus Christi Museum of Science & History (CCMS&H) in Corpus Christi, Texas. He specializes in parasitology, deep-sea biology, natural history, & exobiology, and has a passion for science communication.
What drew you to parasitology in particular?
You are asking me what ‘infected’ me with an interest in parasitology – utter, complete, serendipitous luck! 🙄 For as long as I can remember growing up in Dallas, my whole family and I had an interest in science and participated voluntarily, or at times not quite so, in the entire ‘nerd enterprise’. Yes, growing up watching Star Trek, Star Wars, etc., seeing my father receive a new sci-fi book in the mail every month from the Science Fiction Book Club for years on end, admiring my mother’s hard work and study ethic to become an R.N., listening to my older brother desiring to be an astronomer … it’s in my genes. It was, is, and always will be science for me. But parasitology … well, that didn’t come until my graduate studies.
The dilemma though for me was this: What dish to choose from on the ‘Buffet of Science’ laid out before me? <staring googly-eyed 😮> So many fields of study … However, it was not until my sophomore year at Lloyd V. Berkner High School (Richardson, TX), that I was fortunate enough to have the incredible biology teacher, Mrs. Miriam Giller-Smith (at the time, Ms. Ring). She ‘turned the light on for me’ and my love for animals, the ocean (from our annual family schlepps in the ole’ ’75 Dodge Dart down I-45 from Dallas to Galveston), and science fiction (the alien appearance of monstrous critters in the deep) all culminated that year in my desire to become a deep-sea biologist. So, I end up taking every science class I could in public school, attend UG summer marine biology classes in Port Aransas, Texas at the Univ. of Texas Marine Science Institute, and earn my B.S. in Biology from the Univ. of Texas-Dallas. Now what? Apply for master’s degree programs, of course. So, using a typewriter – you all remember what those are, right?!? – I apply to about a dozen M.S. programs in marine sciences and/or wildlife sciences - all out of state. Hey! I grew up in Texas; I wanted to explore, to see what else in the Good Ole’ US of A was out there … and after a year, I got rejected to them all. Ouch! Valuable life lesson learned here: You can do everything right (e.g., study hard, graduate with honors, volunteer/work in your field of study as an UG, keep up with events/news in your field[s] of interest, etc.) and still lose. It’s not a failing per se, it is simply life.
So, now the following year I apply to grad school programs in Texas, and after a few more rejections, some professor at Texas A&M Univ. named Dr. Norman O. Dronen decides he wants to interview me for a M.S. program in some field called ‘parasitology’. 🤞 Hmm … Okay, I’m thrilled that I got a bite on the ‘grad school fishing hook’ … finally … but I wanted to make sure Dr. Dronen understood that I am a deep-sea biologist first <crossing my arms and nodding my head - complete with a smug brow 🤔>. That 30-minute interview with him changed my career and my life. He looked me right in the eye and asked, “So Chuck, what do you want to do?” This was my shot! I answered, “Dr. Dronen, I want to study the deep sea, so let’s study deep-sea parasites!” The concept sounded really neat (I’d always loved marine invertebrates). It also felt Star Trekkian since neither he nor I were aware of anyone studying deep-sea parasites in the Gulf of Mexico at that time or in the recent past. Still, I was nervous. I was worried. “Could we really do this?” I asked him. Could I really be able to study parasites but remain true to my first love – the way off, seemingly academically aberrant, practically impossible-to-reach-habitat called the ‘deep sea’? My answer to those questions came in Dr. Dronen’s prompt response, which I will always remember. He looked at me square in the eye, stood up behind his desk, crossed his arms, and gave me his ‘smug brow’ right back, “This is Texas A&M. We can do anything we want here.”
‘And the rest is history’ as they say … or better put, ‘natural history’.
It appears you have a passion for science communication. Please tell us about the kinds of Sci Com you do, and how the public responds to your love of parasites.
I will come straight out and tell you, dear reader, that I love, Love, LOVE the liberal arts teaching philosophy(-ies)! Perhaps you like my ‘parasite art’ in this article? For me, it’s an interesting drive; at the intersection of art, parasites, and the open-ended mindset of the liberal arts.
My Sci Com over time has moved from inside the classroom to outside with the public … as in our wondrous Planetarium and Natural History Collections at the CCMS&H. I will always remain very appreciative of the blessings I’ve been offered throughout my life, and one that gives me so much joy right now is engaging in ‘Parasite Sci Com’ to the public. I take every chance I get to give parasite talks to the public through our museum’s wonderful outreach programs (e.g., ‘The Distinguished Lecture Series’ [see flier below for an upcoming talk I am presenting]; ‘The Science on Tap Series’ – Hey, good beer and a parasite talk! It doesn’t get any better than that! 🍻; Going to public schools and presenting to K thru 12th grade kids on fun topics like parasites, deep-sea biology and/or astronomy for our museum’s Ed. Dept. or in the capacity of a certified Texas Master Naturalist).
I can also get really ‘spaced out’ when it comes to Sci Com through the public planetarium shows I LOVE to give often at the museum – especially on weekends, museum events and holidays! A fusion … perhaps stellar H2 fusion? … of astronomy, exobiology, and parasitology – just to name a few disciplines – in these really ‘far out’ shows. If you ask me, given the immense number of parasite species here on Earth, where conditions are quite ‘biologically lavish and comfy’, I can imagine parasites being even more prevalent on other worlds in the cosmos; worlds where conditions wouldn’t make it so comparatively easy to make a ‘free living on your own’ and, resultantly, favor parasitism. Musings like that – it’s ‘public brain candy’! 🍬🍫🍡 The public is a sponge at my shows! It’s amazing! Their brains just ‘suck it up’ and want more and more! They ask questions and lots of them!
Another wonderful opportunity for Sci Com comes thru joining local science clubs, and one of those is the Corpus Christi Astronomical Society (CCAS). This group hosts several Star Parties for the public through the year at local parks/recreational areas. We bring our telescopes, set them up, and let the public ‘gaze into the unknown’ – a great way to get them into amateur astronomy and interested in exobiology – the search for life and exoplanets elsewhere in the universe. I also make it a point to participate in ‘Parasite Week’ each March, made possible through the hard work, time and generosity of many of us at the ASP. Here I can get that ‘wonderfully wormy message’ out to literally millions of folks in the public viewing audience that week via demonstrations of parasites for the weekday TV morning show ‘Coastal Living’ broadcast on KZTV to everyone along the Texas Coastal Bend. I remain thankful for the enthusiasm of the show’s hosts and producers like Clarissa Serna, Kendle Bomersbach and others. It’s also fun to present a ‘host’ of parasite oddities to school kids around the country that same week via the ASP and SKYPE. The kids and teachers are so appreciative for taking the time to pass along your enthusiasm and love for parasites. I also go to regional and national meetings, both in parasitology and deep-sea biology, and present my work. Prior to COVID, Christy and I loved to go to different regional meetings (e.g., NEAP, RMCP, SSP, SWAP, etc.) where I could ‘infect’ fellow parasitologists with a love of and/or interest in deep-sea helminths, meet new people with similar interests, and see some new and exciting research. I can’t wait to resume trips to the regional meetings when they begin to meet again in person. It was at SWAP that I gave my first paper … and received offers for a Ph.D. program later that very same weekend from 3 profs – you know who you are 😉 - that I will forever feel indebted to. Thank you, at that time I so very much needed that pat on the back. 😊
What advice would you offer to someone starting a career in scientific research?
This is a tough question for me. Not because of content, but because giving advice falls into one of my ‘personal rules for life’. And that ‘rule’ is – never give advice. 😉 It’s up there with some other ‘personal rules’ that I’ve strongly taken to heart: (1) Do not discuss politics; (2) Do not discuss religion; and (3) Do not discuss the ‘numbers.’ What are the ‘numbers’ you may ask? For women: no mention of weight or age. For men: no mention of salary/pay. I’m not sexist, but I’ve found that, for many, those particular numbers are very important … perhaps, too important, you may say? Well, you may feel differently and that is just fine with me, but I’ve learned over the years that it is much safer to play on the sidewalk of life than on the freeway, if you get my drift. But nevertheless – you need to play!
So, I will be brief here. You are that ‘someone starting a career in scientific research’ - fresh out of the ‘career starting gate’. Congratulations! I envy you. Really! You are just at the beginning of the journey and have so much ahead of you. Remember these days! This is the good stuff! It’s like the first time you fall in love, you never quite love someone that same way again. Oh, and while you are out there jockeying for a career science position, trying to get to that inside lane that you hope will take you to some ‘finish line’, don’t forget to regularly make a pit stop or two during the race; leave the track for a time to reassess and take stock in where you’ve been, where you are, and where you want – or think! – you want to go. Ask yourself, “Are you sure you want that particular finish line”? People and the career race(s) can and often change – and that is okay! If you feel you’ve only got one race to run, your childhood dream, good for you! Stay with it, keep plugging, and when you hit the bumps – and you will hit A LOT of bumps – don’t quit and don’t ride the brakes either. Perhaps you are not ‘dead set’ on one career goal, that’s okay, too! Let yourself find a new track to run on if you feel like it. We’ll still all keep running in circles around the track(s) and waving at each other thru life! 🖐
Lastly, I offer you, young neophyte, 7, concise, lucky, little ‘life bites’ I’ve been fortunate enough to gather in my mind’s ‘cookie box’ over the years … and my ‘box’, honestly, is pretty darn small folks (i.e., I have never been, nor have I ever expected to be, the smartest person in any room 😂) … but here it goes:
1. The only person you truly compete against is yourself.
2. You will never run into a greater advisory than your own potential.
3. The Golden Rule of ‘loving your neighbor as yourself’ works well in any career you’d want to have.
4. Q: What do you call the student who graduates dead last in his/her class in medical school?
Moral of the Story: Always try your best but remember that being a winner in life is much more than about finishing, or trying to finish, first (i.e., You can win the rat race – but you’re still a rat! - see #3 above).
5. Volunteer. Raise your hand. Make an extra effort. Get your passion and your name out there. Get your voice heard. In other words - Take Risks! If you don’t, you will never … ever … get noticed by anyone.
6. We all have gifts and talents – find out what yours are and use them.
7. We all have responsibilities and priorities – find out what yours are and never betray them.
My thanks to Kelly Weinersmith for inviting me to write this ASP Member Spotlight for our newsletter. All statements are my own, and I accept full responsibility for and plead ‘Guilty’ to all interpretations, misinterpretations, pedantic droning, and futile attempts at humor herein.
Stay safe and good health, everyone. 🙏
[Editor's note: Thanks to you too, Chuck! I appreciate the laughs, and good advice. Stay safe and good health to you as well!]