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Member Spotlight: Dr. Vasyl Tkach

Interview questions for Member Spotlight series by Abigail Kimball.

In this ASP Member Spotlight, we interview Dr. Vasyl Tkach, who is a Full Professor of Biology at the University of North Dakota.

What drew you to parasitology in particular?

After my first year at the Uzhgorod State University in Ukraine, I planned to become a botanist and study orchids, mainly due to their intricate biology. However, soon I discovered that parasites are equally complex and yes, beautiful. It all started when two older students who already studied helminths of fish, amphibians and reptiles, came to talk to me at the end of my freshman year. Since there was no lab at the department available for student research, the only choice was the dorm room. The minimum number of people in a dorm room was 3 and they were looking for a third roommate who would be OK with dissecting animals in the room and basically turning it into a lab. For some reason (and apparently after talking to other freshmen), they thought I was that person. They were right. When early in the fall semester of 1981 I saw for the first time a live tapeworm contracting in the open intestine I was mesmerized and never looked back. A concept of a living creature inside another organism sounded incredible to me then and is still incredible to me now. So, I traded orchids for parasites. For the record – at the time I did not know about the famous comparison of a parasitologist to an orchid by Asa Chandler.

What has been one of your most exciting discoveries?

I believe my most exciting discovery is not published yet. Otherwise, among the large number of parasites of all sorts that I found in different corners of the world one is most memorable. While working on parasites of Australian turtles with Scott Snyder, on one of the trips to Western Australia in the Lake Argyle area, I found very unusual digeneans in the hind gut and rectum of red-faced turtles. Under the dissecting scope I saw rows of elevated glands on their ventral surface like those found in some monostomes, e.g. Notocotylidae and Microscaphidiidae. But these digeneans clearly had a ventral sucker, therefore I was certain that I had a new genus and maybe a new family at hand. I was in this celebratory mood until back in the United States I had a chance to stain and mount the specimens. Even before I obtained sequence data it was clear that it was "just" a bizarre member of the genus Aptorchis, all members of which are known only from Australian turtles. So, no new genus, but a new, highly unusual species. To the best of my knowledge, it was the first and still the only member of the Plagiorhioidea having these structures. Somehow, the presence of these glands in different groups of digeneans is strongly associated with living in the hindgut, rectum or ceca. I still have no idea why and I do not think anyone does.

Do you prefer field work or laboratory work?

This is a tie because they are connected and interdependent. There is nothing like working in the lab on the treasures collected during a most recent collecting trip. I equally love both these activities. I can tell, however, the type of activity I like the least: paperwork.

Any funny stories from the field?

I did field work every year since 1985, sometimes working on 3-4 different continents in a single season, therefore there are many stories. One of them can be found in a recent field note "Bayou Magic" on the ASP blog. Another fun episode happened on the Luzon Island, Philippines. We needed to cross a somewhat wide and fast moving creek in rainforest. Instead of looking for a place to wade across, I spotted a sturdy looking vine hanging over the creek so I decided to play a Tarzan and cross the creek without getting wet. Although the vine was indeed sturdy enough and I was in a good enough shape to do it if the vine was dry, the vine turned out to be very slippery due to wet moss and lichens. I could not hold on to it well and fell down into water right in the middle of the creek, just like in one of those TV shows where participants try to go through various obstacles. It was relatively shallow, I only got a couple scratches from rocks and the rest of the crew had a good laugh. My camera (a long zoom point and shoot) was not so lucky, though, and stopped working after being submerged. That was a reminder for me that things may be not what they look like.

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

Favorite and coolest are different. It would be difficult to choose one, anyway, because I worked with a huge variety of species and groups. Speaking of my personal choices for coolest, I take the liberty to name one from the three largest groups I work with. Among digeneans it would be members of the genus Choanocotyle parasitic in Australian turtles that have a bizarre pillow-shaped structure instead of oral sucker. Among cestodes, cyclophyllideans have a hard time competing in coolness with some tapes from elasmobranchs, but they can stand the ground in the elegance category. The coolest to me personally are members of the genus Tatria parasitic in grebes. My students call them "Christmas tree tapeworms" and you can see why. Among nematodes, the anterior end of Ancyracanthus from South American turtles beats anything I have seen among parasitic nematodes. It looks like a monster from your bad dreams.

In your opinion, what are the benefits of having international collaborators?

Without a doubt, I would not be able to do most of what I have done, without a network of terrific colleagues around the world. I collaborated or collaborate with colleagues from at least 30 countries on all continents and find collaboration one of the most rewarding aspects of my research. Despite living in a small town lost between soybean and beet fields half a year and frozen tundra the other half, students in my lab feel that they are a part of a broader, international scientific community. It gives a certain amount of satisfaction that on a cold winter day in North Dakota we may work on specimens from Australia, Kenya, Philippines or Ecuador.

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

Spend enough time looking for the subject that you really like. Unlike some other areas of human activity, in science you have to enjoy doing what you are doing, otherwise it will not work. If you can, stick to people who are not only good scientists, but are also comfortable to work with. Once you have become established in your field, try something new outside your comfort zone.

What qualities make a good mentor?

This question is impossible to answer briefly, so just a few thoughts. Create conditions and environment for students to grow and succeed. Make sure students know that they are equal colleagues and that the learning is always bi-directional. Encourage initiative and creativity rather than just make students do things the way you do them. Do not praise without a good reason, otherwise your praise loses its value. Lead by example in the field and in the lab; try to do the same chores as everyone else does, even if it is not possible to the same extent. Once you see that a student has developed to a certain level, get out of the way and just standby ready to help.

Do you have any tricks for handling frustrating situations (i.e. when experiments aren’t going well, your paper was rejected, etc.)?

This happens to everyone. The ability to get over a frustration and stay positive is one of the critical qualities for anyone working in academia. I always remember that I am blessed being able to do what I love doing, that there are many good people around, that I can help someone else and that things can always get better. Any work related problems I may have are minor compared to the difficulties I experienced earlier in my life and infinitely smaller than what a lot of people experience on daily basis, including in my native Ukraine right now. Do not let frustration win. As a practical advice, I would say go fishing for a few hours, but in ND it is not possible 7 months of the year unless you are into ice fishing.

Favorite book? Seems like you like Tolkien 😊

I do like Tolkien. The "Lord of the Rings" in my subjective opinion is close to an ideal piece of literature from every viewpoint – the conception, the completeness and development of the plot and characters, and of course, the writing itself. Feel free to argue, but you will not sway me on this. 😊 My favorite author, however, is the British naturalist, animal collector, zookeeper and excellent writer Gerald Durrell whose books I read and re-read many times. Other than that, I am more or less omnivorous. If it is a good book I will read it whether it is classic literature, history, biography ("The Agony and the Ecstasy", "Madame Curie by Her Daughter" are among favorites), travel (Bill Bryson) or science fiction (classics by Isaac Azimov, Roger Zelazny and many others). Well, even a Jack Reacher story is great for a transoceanic flight. I am guilty of reading almost exclusively from Kindle ever since its introduction.

If you could have dinner with anyone alive or dead, who would it be?

Can I have dinner with two people? That would be my two biggest heroes: Louis Pasteur and Marie Sklodowska-Curie. If I only had to pick one it would be Louis Pasteur, the man whose invincible belief was that science and peace will triumph over ignorance and war.

Your research projects seem to span the globe (Australia, South America, etc.), what has been your favorite place to work/visit?

It is truly impossible to pick between Andes, Rockies, Carpathians, Mount Kenya, savanna, rainforest or Australian outback. If I was pressed to name a single region that would be Australia where we had several unforgettable expeditions with my dear friend and colleague Scott Snyder. The next would be Pantanal at the end of the wet season.

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