Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The last post of 2008…hopefully it doesn’t suck. The holidays come unexpectedly every year, but especially this year. A large experiment prevented me from doing normal Xmas stuff, like visiting a Xmas market, drinking Glühwein, and actually going shopping (the internet saved me). So I never really got into the Xmas mood. On the 22nd, after 3 long days of dissecting the copepods, I finished working for the year (at least in Plön). The next day was spent traveling. I went by train to Leipzig, met Ines, and then we drove to her parents in Spechtsbrunn. The next day, Santa came to visit, as he traditionally does in Germany. All I actually wished for Xmas was a few quiet days, much to Ines’ displeasure. Well, I must have been good this year, because in addition to some quiet, work-free days, I got some new underwear, a new guitar hero game, and a new cell phone (it even has a camera…what a technological upgrade for me!). As far as I could tell, everyone in Ines’s family was more than satisfied with their gifts, so I am left to conclude that Xmas was a success. Ines got a new video camera from her family. She has been happily filming everyone. While I am glad she is enjoying herself, I cannot shake the feeling that there are going to be a large number of embarrassing recordings of me in the near future. The scenery in Spechtsbrunn was also appropriately wintery. Despite temperatures well above 0 in most of Germany, there is a decent amount of snow on the ground in Spechtsbrunn. We even went sledding. After Xmas, Ines and I came back to Leipzig and were both immediately sick. I spent an evening puking my guts out, but then made a relatively quick recovery. Ines, on the other hand, has had a cold that she can’t seem to shake. I actually expected to get sick during the holidays. Once the stress of work is gone and I finally relax, I get sick. That is just what happens. Anyways, now we both seem to be in good enough condition to orderly celebrate the New Year. We are going to our neighbors for a James Bond-themed party. I asked the party hosts, why James Bond? As a big fan, I was curious about the inspiration behind the theme. Sadly, there was no real inspiration; they admitted to having hardly ever watched a Bond movie. It was just a good way to get people dressed up. Yeah, so Ines and I (and friend Lena) are bringing in the New Year in style (pictured).

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Many parasites have complex life cycles in which they require their current host to be eaten by the next host, e.g. a tapeworm cyst in an undercooked sausage. To facilitate transmission between hosts, parasites often alter the behavior of their hosts. For example, an infected host may not hide as often uninfected hosts or they may not act afraid of predator odors. These behavioral modifications presumably increase the parasite’s chances at getting eaten by the next host in its life cycle. There are a lot of examples of this phenomenon, and besides making for good cocktail party conversation, this is a fascinating and active area of research in parasite evolutionary ecology. All 3 of the papers I published in 2008 deal with host manipulation. I’ve been working in this field since I got into professional science; my undergrad thesis was on the photic behavior of amphipods infected with duck acanthocephalans. For my stay in Finland, I did not plan to do any work on host manipulation. I intended to learn how to make molecular phylogenies. I did a bit of work in this direction, but the endless pipetting associated with DNA work bored me somewhat. With the blessing of my advisor Tellervo and the urging of my collaborator Otto Seppälä, I planned some small experiments dealing with host manipulation. Those initial experiments snowballed and eventually became a major component of my PhD thesis. We somehow squeezed 4 manuscripts out of that work (2 published this year, 1 coming out next year, and a fourth hopefully next year too). While I am proud of this work, I think that I am sick of host manipulation. Maybe it was the painful peer-review process that did it to me, but maybe it is simply time for something new. I have worked on host manipulation on and off since I started in science 5 years ago. Next year, I want to focus on a whole new direction. Lately, I have been trying to understand the evolutionary forces acting on larval parasite growth and development. This is extremely interesting, but it is actually quite similar to the whole manipulation business, i.e. host manipulation usually only begins when parasite’s reach a particular developmental stage. The new field that I intend to delve into is the evolution of mixed mating in hermaphrodites. All tapeworms have both male and female sexual organs, and can thus fertilize their own eggs or accept sperm from other worms. Fertilizing one’s own eggs is generally a bad idea, because it represents an extreme form of inbreeding. In the tapeworm I am working with, it has been shown that inbreeding is costly; inbred worm eggs hatch very poorly. Thus, worms should avoid fertilizing their own eggs. They don’t, however. Even when a partner is present, worms still self-fertilize a small portion of their eggs. This seems wasteful, so it is puzzling why they do it. Starting next year, I intend to work towards an explanation for this paradox. Consider it a nerdy new year’s resolution.

Friday, December 05, 2008

I missed yet another Thanksgiving. As a kid, I thought Thanksgiving was just the prelude to Xmas, but as I aged, I realized what a great holiday it is. No presents or religion to complicate things, just food, family, and football. Lovely. It also prevents (somewhat) the annual Xmas hysteria from amalgamating prematurely. Unfortunately, without the time off from work, Thanksgiving has become just another day of the year for me. On Thanksgiving, I worked until about 8 helping our potential PhD student analyze some data (yeah we seem to have finally found one, but that’s another story)…didn’t leave much time to cook a turkey. In 2006, I actually gave my interview talk in Plön on Thanksgiving, which might make it my most stressful, yet memorable, Thanksgiving. Now that Thanksgiving is over, we can all focus on the obligatory Xmas shopping. I really dislike the mandatory consumerism in which I partake every year; I just do not want to go shopping. Moreover, I believe it has gotten more challenging in recent years. For example, I have to ship presents to my family in Nebraska, which limits the size of gifts that I can buy. The list of people that require a present also grows from year to year. My girlfriend’s family now is included on that list, which is a pretty sure sign that this relationship is more serious that I ever imagined. It is not just finding the right gift for the right person. It is also finding time to look for gifts. Stupidly, or diligently depending on your perspective, I started some rather large experiments last week that will run until Xmas and involve about 2500 copepods. All that copepod infecting, checking, and dissecting doesn’t leave much time for Xmas shopping. I am convinced that the answer to my problems lies on the internet. Quick and easy point-and-click shopping. Hopefully, I can manage to do it soon, so that everything ships on time. It is quite embarrassing saying ‘um, your gift is in the mail…merry Xmas’. As a follow up to the previous post, I am happy that Obama won. Amazingly, he even won Omaha, so my vote mattered! I have a renewed faith in democracy and my landsmen. That is like an early Xmas present.