Nov. 1, 2018

The 6th Annual Host-Parasite Interactions Bootcamp 2018

Article by Susan Wang (MSc student, McKay lab, University of Calgary)

Approximately 10% of graduate students pursue careers in academia. This year’s HPI bootcamp focused on career development and career planning, opening the eyes of many HPI trainees to the world of careers available to us post-graduation.

We were greeted with snow early Friday morning at the UCalgary Biogeoscience Institute in Kananaskis. Arriving just before 8am, myself and a few of the other McKay lab members lingered in the warmth of the car before exploring the newly renovated classroom building at the field station. The classroom building, shiny and new, was equipped with a lecture hall and a laboratory on the main level. We eagerly waited for hot tea and coffee on the cold September morning as the other HPI members trickled into the lecture hall.

As a first-time HPI bootcamp attendee, I was thrilled to participate in the 2-minute thesis (but maybe not so thrilled that it was first thing in the morning). As HPI has done in the past, Dr. Dawn McCaugherty, a retired Professor from the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Calgary, was invited to the HPI Bootcamp to help judge and critique our thesis “elevator” pitches. Her words were kind, complimenting many students on their strengths (great presence, good pace, excellent eye contact) but also giving constructive feedback on our weaknesses (wider stance, better posture, fewer hand movements). It was fantastic to have feedback on our presentation styles; skills that I believe are important for grad school, but also for life in general and our future careers, should they be in research, education, medicine, or industry.

Soon after, we were divided into groups, and during a team-building exercise, we were charged with the task of building the highest possible structure using 10 pieces of spaghetti, a one-metre-long piece of (really unreliably un-sticky) tape, one metre of string, and a marshmallow that had to complete the structure at the top. My team was a little too optimistic about the strength of our Eiffel-tower-like spaghetti structure, and ended up with a pile of dry noodles; however, our communication and spirit proved effective despite the undesirable turnout. It was a fun and educational activity for all trainees, and helped to identify strengths and weaknesses in our capacity to work with others under stressful conditions.

After lunch, during which the students mingled with each other, faculty members, Dr. Cam Goater from the University of Lethbridge and Dr. Patrick Hanington from the University of Alberta educated us on Whirling disease which is found in the lakes of Alberta., They suggested this as new area of research for the parasitologists in HPI. When infected by the Myxobolus cerebralis parasite, fish develop skeletal and nervous system abnormalities, often resulting in the development of a crooked tail that causes them to swim in circles (hence the name, whirling disease). Tiny, diseased and deceased fish, with missing eyeballs and crooked tails, were passed around in a small jar, alongside a peculiar ball of red worms called Tubifex tubifex, an intermediate host of the microscopic parasite. Whirling disease was first identified in Banff National Park in 2016, and presents itself as a major burden for the Albertan fishing economy, which relies on salmonid fish like the infected trout. We were then invited into the adjacent laboratory to take a look at live infected fish alongside snails and other hosts of various parasites found in the Bow river.

After this talk, Dr. Stephanie Warner, a former PhD student, experimental medicine at the University of British Columbia, and now a career planning mentor at the Univeristy of Calgary, Career Services, held a workshop called “your degree for career success” that touched on the importance of career planning in graduate school. We were given resources and maps with questions to determine our passions, interests and skills, which were meant to help start guiding us toward well suited and fulfilling career paths. This was helpful for many HPI trainees who don’t have a clue of what they will do after grad school (which may very well be the majority of us).

Dr. Stephanie Peacock, post-doctoral fellow in Dr. Susan Kutz’s lab, gave an informative workshop on the scientific review process. Many trainees and PIs, including myself, “have never had any formal training on how to review a paper, revealing this as a gap in graduate education. The presentation itself touched on models of peer review (e.g. single blind, double blind, or open), the ethical considerations involved, and some tips on how to write a constructive and helpful review”, Stephanie summarized in an email, “There were great questions from trainees, including ‘How much time should I spend reviewing a paper, and how many review invitations should I accept a year?’, to which PIs answered: ‘A review can take 3 hours to a day to a week depending on how knowledgeable you are with the material’… ‘but it gets easier and faster with practice’, and, ‘Try to review 3 papers for every one paper you publish’. There was sometimes conflicting advice from PIs (e.g. on whether you email the journal to let them know that you’re sharing a review with your mentor/supervisor), demonstrating the sometimes difficult ethical dilemmas that can come with reviewing, but the take home message was to respect the guidelines and obligations set out by the journal.” Overall, I think that this was a relevant workshop for many of the trainees, and a workshop that should be frequently offered by the graduate studies programs at the University of Calgary.

We ended the day of workshops with a lecture from Dr. Clement Lagrue, assistant professor at University of Alberta, who gave an entertaining talk on how he came to study host manipulation by parasites. Dr. Lagrue explained his proposed research program, as well as outlining some of his past experience researching parasites that infect freshwater animals in both New Zealand and France.

After a long day of focused attention, we were rewarded with a delicious dinner served in the newly renovated dining hall, followed by the “Game Grand Challenge” that was organized by Dr. Amanda Melin, Dr. Thibault Allain from the Buret lab and Colin MacFarland from the Melin and Buret labs. There were three separate trivia-style games, which proved to be much more challenging than any of the attendees could have expected (who would have known what a scanning electron micrograph of an eggshell looked like?). The final challenge included an interpretative dance competition of host-parasite systems that Dr. Lash Gedamu won, but not without some tough competition. After the game, many of the trainees mingled in the dining hall, networking, drinking, eating snacks, playing board games and sharing laughs.