Updated: Sep 25, 2018
By Kelly Weinersmith
Did you know that parasitism evolved over 200 times? Dr. Sara Weinstein came to this number after painstakingly collecting information on the evolution of parasitism across all animal phyla, and published her findings in “Independent origins of parasitism in Animalia” (co-authored by Dr. Armand Kuris) in Biology Letters. The reach of this finding extended far beyond just the scientific community (with coverage appearing in places like National Geographic and Smithsonian Magazine).
Sara earned her PhD in 2017 at the University of California Santa Barbara, under the mentorship of Drs. Armand Kuris and Kevin Lafferty. In addition to studying the evolution of parasitism, Sara studied Baylisascaris procyonis, a nematode for which racoons are the definitive hosts (becoming infected either by direct contact with parasite eggs in the environment, or from consuming infected paratenic hosts) and humans are accidental hosts. In addition to studying B. procyonis infection in raccoons, rodents and humans, she determined that susceptible paratenic hosts avoid contaminated areas, suggesting that parasites might create a “landscape of fear”. She then expanded on the concept of ecology of fear and disgust in a perspective piece for Science. But who cares about Science? Our favorite metric is the number of times someone has published in our Society’s journal, and Sara published four papers from her PhD work on B. procyonis in the Journal of Parasitology (the papers can be found here, here, here, and here)! Sara is currently a Smithsonian-Mpala Postdoctoral Fellow with the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Utah.
You may also know Sara from her parasite-related artwork. She is the creator of the “I heart parasites” and “parasite world” shirts that so many of us (myself included) have purchased at ASP conferences. She has been an ASP member for 8 years, and was ASP's Student Council Representative for 1 year while working on her PhD.
We learned that Sara is currently “chasing giant poisonous rats (and their parasites) in Kenya” and had just “collected a bunch of ectoparasitic earwigs from the butt of a giant pouched rat”, and at that point it was clear who we needed to cover for our first Member Spotlight. Below Sara tells us a bit about her dissertation work, and what she’s up to currently.
1. What discovery did you make while doing your PhD that you're most excited about?
In Santa Barbara County, CA (my PhD study area), 90% of raccoons host adult raccoon roundworm, 40% of deer mice host juveniles, and 7% of people have antibodies to this raccoon parasite. There is an amazing, generally underappreciated, amount of raccoon roundworm out there in the environment (and in us).
2. We hear you're playing with poisonous rats in Africa. What's up with that?
I am currently studying host-parasite-poison interactions in the African crested rat, Lophiomys imhausi. This unique African rodent uses cardenolide toxins from the poison arrow tree (Acokanthera schimperi) as a predator defense. Cardenolides are highly lethal to most animals and little is known about this poison sequestration behavior or the mechanisms by which the rat (and its parasites) survive exposure. I’ve spent the last 8 months in Kenya trapping and sampling wild crested rats to examine how host and parasite mutations and microbial metabolism facilitate this unusual behavior.
3. Do you have a story about a favorite research moment you'd like to share? Perhaps a particularly memorable "aha moment"? Or a particularly memorable failure?
A particularly memorable failure— my first year as a grad student I decided that I wanted to try to study the unknown part of the dicyemid life cycle. After hatching out several hundred (cannibalistic) octopuses, getting 2 months into a series of exposure trials, and developing some local dicyemid pcr primers, the entire octopus colony was taken out by a bacterial infection. Between the octopus epidemic and my inability to function on a boat, a terrestrial PhD seemed like a good idea.
4. What's next for you?
This fall I will be returning to the states as an NIH postdoc fellow at the University of Utah, continuing work on the poison rat project and starting a new project on parasite-gut microbe interactions in toxin feeding desert woodrats. I am really looking forward to some elephant free fieldwork!
5. Do you have any advice you'd like to share with the next generation of parasitologists?
Take advantage of phenomenal expertise of ASP members and don’t be afraid to ask for help with methods, IDs, or ideas.
(Is there an ASP member who you think is particularly worthy of a Member Spotlight? Let me know! E-mail Kelly Weinersmith at Weinersmith (at) Rice (.) edu.)