Interview by Abigail Kimball
This month Abigail Kimball interviews Dr. Kelly Speer, who recently received her PhD from the American Museum of Natural History.
What drew you to parasitology in particular?
Do you remember the movie “Men in Black?” The galaxy hidden on Orion’s belt? The Men in Black realize an entire galaxy was hidden right in front of them, and that’s exactly the way I felt when I started learning about parasitology in college. It was like a whole suite of life had been revealed to me that hadn’t really been hiding in the first place.
What has been one of your most exciting discoveries?
During my master’s, I had the opportunity to do field work on bats and bat flies (Streblidae) in The Bahamas. Not much work has been done there and, to my knowledge, no work had previously been done on the parasites on these islands. When I got back from the field, I started trying to key out the flies I had collected. I was having an awful time with one group of flies and I reached out to Dr. Carl Dick, a bat fly expert. I thought I was just bad at morphologically identifying bat flies, but it turns out this group of flies was a new species! This sort of thing happens a lot in parasitology, so it isn’t a terribly exciting discovery for the field, but it was exciting to me!
Any funny stories from the field?
Oh man, yes. Mostly field work fails that are only funny after many many months of distance. One story that stands out happened a couple of years ago in central Belize. I was attempting to collect bat ticks from a looter’s tunnel dug out beneath an unexcavated Mayan temple. Unfortunately, most of the ticks seemed to be located closer to where bats were roosting, above my arm’s reach. Neil Duncan, the collection manager of Mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History, kindly offered to put me on his shoulders so that I could reach more ticks. So there I am, sitting on Neil’s shoulders, picking ticks off this tunnel wall, while vampire bats are flying into me, and while Neil is standing in vampire bat poop. It’s not where I thought that trip would end up and I’m absolutely positive it isn’t where Neil thought it would end up either. Even better, this moment was captured in perpetuity by Dr. Brock Fenton, who always seems to have a camera ready in the field J
What is one of your favorite scientific papers or stories?
I’m actually re-reading The Geographic Mosaic of Coevolution by John Thompson right now! This book is so easy to follow and it really framed the way I think about parasitology in the context of communities of interacting organisms occurring in geographically variable localities.
What was one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned during your PhD?
Taking breaks is critical to gain a broader perspective of a research project. I’m definitely guilty of losing sight of the larger context of a project by getting mired in the details. The only way I’ve found to regain that big picture view, is to stop thinking about that research for a bit. When you revisit it with fresh eyes, I think it’s easier to be excited about the contributions the research project makes.
What’s your favorite parasite and why is it the coolest?
Well bat flies have a tender place in my heart, because they are a conundrum. Most species are host-specific even though they move between host individuals, frequently leave the vicinity of their host species to lay larvae, and many species can fly. Most species are also entirely covered in setae, so they just look woolly and what’s not to love about that!
What is some of the best advice you’ve received?
My mom told me that showing up is half the battle. I don’t think that she ever considered that a pearl of wisdom, but it’s stuck with me and I think it’s helped me progress through this career.
Could you speak to the pros and cons of doing research at a museum vs. at a university?
Museums are amazing because of their collections and the people who work to maintain them. There is a wealth of knowledge safeguarded in these institutions, so doing research at a museum gives you this constant source of inspiration through access to specimens and experts in phylogenetics, systematics, natural history, and field work. At a university, I was challenged and inspired by the extreme breadth of research conducted in a single department. You have the benefit of exposure to broad swaths of biology that aren’t necessarily present in museums. At universities, it can be harder to get your field protocols approved through IACUC, because committees sometimes lack field biologists. At museums, you can sometimes become trapped in an idea bubble, because you are surrounded by similar research.
What made you decide to pursue a PhD at the American Museum of Natural History?
I honestly chose to work the AMNH because Dr. Susan Perkins and Dr. Nancy Simmons were going to co-advise me. Not only are they outstanding scientists, but they were my first female advisors. The AMNH offers amazing resources to its students and is a fantastic museum, but ultimately I made the choice because of Dr. Perkins and Dr. Simmons.
Do you have any tricks for handling frustrating situations (i.e. when experiments aren’t going well, your paper was rejected, etc.)?
Well, I’m partial to milkshakes.
If you weren’t a parasitologist what career would you have pursued instead?
When I started college, I wanted to be high school teacher. Maybe I would have pursued that.
If you could have dinner with anyone alive or dead, who would it be?
Annie M. Alexander. She was a charter member of the American Society of Mammalogists, she founded the University of California Museum of Paleontology and Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, and she was an intrepid field biologist when that wasn’t really an option for women.
What are your passions in life besides science?
I like to play and watch sports, I like cooking, and I have two cats which require a lot of doting J I’m trying to learn Spanish and I want to take up backpacking.
It looks like you are very active on Twitter! What is your opinion on the role of social media in science communication?
I’m actually taking a break from Twitter! I think social media is a great way to advertise your research and I’ve learned about a lot of research on Twitter that I don’t think I would have known about otherwise. For me, Twitter became a little too consuming. Sometimes there is a lot of toxicity on the platform and it started to spill over into how I was feeling even when I wasn’t on Twitter. I’m still learning how to modulate my involvement with social media. I think it has value for advertising yourself and hearing from voices that aren’t normally amplified, but I need to find a way to interact with social media that doesn’t negatively impact my mental health.
Any advice for maintaining a work-life balance as a scientist?
Eh, I’m trying to figure that out myself. One thing I’ve been working on lately is making the most of my time at work and then making the most of my time at home. I’m trying to be more disciplined about being in the moment, so there is less bleeding over of work into home and home into work.
What do you think are the next big questions to be answered in parasitology?
In light of evidence from free-living plants and animals on the devastating impacts of climate change, how should conservation be applied to parasites? What impacts might parasite extinctions have on free-living communities? I guess that’s two related questions J
What do you think is the biggest barriers for those just starting their careers in science?
Knowing where to start. The rules for preparing and applying to graduate school in biology are so different than applying to medical school or applying to a job. Each advancing step after graduate school seems to get less and less structured. Mentors are really the unrecognized workhorses of helping people get through these hoops.
How do you think cutting edge technologies and big data will affect the field of parasitology?
It’s really exciting! Using some of these technologies, like whole genome screening and micro CT scanning, we can mine data collected from free-living organisms for information on their associated parasites. Especially given the push for open access, big data generated for one purpose may hold valuable insights for an unforeseen hypothesis.
What is the biggest issue facing science today?
Maybe it’s the career stage I’ve just entered, but I think there are a lot of issues that science is grappling with today. For example, how should we treat scientists who have made important research contributions, but have done horrible things in their personal or professional lives? How will academia be shaped by shrinking faculty positions, growing adjunct positions, and attractive private sector positions? How do scientists grapple with the spread of false information in a time when opinions are often treated equivalently to facts?
In your opinion, what is the role of scientists in political conversations?
Scientists have expertise to offer and I think that expertise is valuable in discerning good and bad government policies. The role of scientists in any professional conversation should be to provide the knowledge they’ve gathered in an accessible way.