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Member Spotlight: Dr. Heather Stigge

Original interview questions for Member Spotlight series by Abigail Kimball.

Question updates and interview by Allison Bryant.

In this ASP Member Spotlight, we interview Dr. Heather Stigge, an Assistant Professor of Biology at the College of Saint Mary.

What made you interested in parasitology?

As an undergraduate student, I attended Peru State College. At the time, nearly every science faculty there predominantly studied parasites, and my professors were my role models. I liked them, and I wanted to be like them. I also began working in parasitology research because I thought that it would build my resume so that I would be accepted into medical school, but I stayed in the field because of I loved the worms that I studied. As an undergraduate student, I discovered the mesmerizing display of hooks as the acanthocephalan retracted and protracted its proboscis. During my M.S. degree, I was acquainted with quirks of live cestodes, trematodes, acanthocephalans, monogeneans, and nematodes that composed the assemblages within fish. I observed the behavior of these worms, and from that, I realized that I am most interested in the biology of the parasites and the interactions between the ecology of the worms and that of their hosts. During my Ph.D. I was lucky to work with a strange group of trematodes in the genus Halipegus, whose unique life cycles allowed for manipulation and experimentation. Each research experience that I have had since my freshman year at PSC has presented new groups of worms and questions. The more that I knew, the more that I realized that I did not know much at all. There is so much that we still need to learn about parasites, and that has kept and reinforced my interest in parasitology.

What is your current research/project and what are you hoping to find/discover?

My current parasitology research focuses on variation in life cycles of nematomorphs. My students and I are currently studying cyst morphology within snails. We are interested in examining the link between variation in cyst morphology, folding patterns, and molecular analyses. We are also examining variation in development of worms across hosts within the life cycle. I hope that these observational and experimental studies continue to demonstrate that life cycles are not as rigidly constrained as suggested by the diagrams in most textbooks and journal articles. The variability is the most interesting part!

I also study the effects of mentoring, support services, and STEM experiences on women’s goal orientation, women’s perception of their STEM abilities, and the retention of women in STEM. We were fortunate to receive NSF funding to support this work.

What is your most exciting discovery?

I think that the most exciting thing that I have ever discovered will not sound very exciting to most other people! As an undergraduate, I worked on the life cycle of an acanthocephalan, Paulisentis missouriensis. After approximately a year of attempting to experimentally infect the fish definitive host with laboratory raised cystacanths, I finally did it! I recovered this tiny worm from the mucosae of the fish’s alimentary canal, and it was BEAUTIFUL! It was approximately 10:00 P.M., but I had to show someone. I convinced the only person that I could find, a very patient custodian, to come to the lab and share in my excitement.

What advice would you offer to someone starting a career in scientific research?

I recommend they find a supportive mentor that has characteristics listed below. I also recommend that someone just beginning their career diversifies their skillset and gains as much teaching and presentation experience as possible. Even if that person does not want a career teaching, the experience managing a class and the presentation skills gained while teaching are transferrable to many research-based professions.

What qualities make a good mentor?

The qualities of a good mentor will vary according to the needs of the mentee. However, there are several traits that I believe are characteristic to the best mentors that I have had:

1. Knowledgeable

2. Has an extensive network of scientists and professionals

3. Patient

4. Kind

5. Flexible and Understanding

6. Generous with time and authorship/ownership of work

7. A sense of humor (because things will always go awry at some point!)

What is the biggest issue facing science today?

As an academic, I think that the biggest issue facing science today is the general scientific illiteracy and skepticism that the public demonstrates regularly. The perceived value of science, especially in the last decade, has diminished significantly. It seems that people do not care to find answers that are supported by evidence when they can find answers of convenience.

What’s your favorite parasite and why is it the coolest?

There are too many cool parasites to choose! I tend to be most interested in parasites with unique life cycles. My favorite parasites will always be Halipegus occidualis and Halipegus eccentricus since I spent so much of my time dedicated to studying their life cycles, and I have many fond memories associated with that work. However, if I had to choose one that I have not worked on, I would select Nanophyetus salmincola. I think that it is really cool that this trematode can serve as a host/vector for Neorickettsia helminthoeca while also being a parasite itself.

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