Sunday, September 21, 2014

Officially an Author (Part II): Announcing My First Scientific Publication

Hey all! Well, it finally happened. After years as a graduate student, I have finally acquired my first piece of "academic currency". I thought it would be good to tell you guys a little bit more about it in this post and then give you a small preview of some other papers that I have in the works. Happy reading! :)

In February of this year, our lab received samples from mummies interred beneath the Dominican Church of the Holy Spirit in Vilinus, Lithuania. These samples represented intestinal, abdominal, and rectal contents from a handful of individual mummies. We analyzed these samples in search of parasites, starches, and pollen grains. The analysis was conducted by myself, my major professor, and a UCARE student whom we lovingly referred to as our "under-grunt". (UCARE is a program through our university that sponsors undergraduate research. It stands for "Undergraduate Creative Activities and Research Experiences".)

By the end of the month, we had not only finished the parasite analysis (the pollen analysis extended for another month or so), but I had also prepared a manuscript for publication regarding our parasite findings. Basically, we had found that one of the ten samples analyzed contained the eggs of both Ascaris lumbricoides (human mawworm) and Trichuris trichiura (human whipworm). These findings were exciting (aside from the fact that we found parasite eggs, which is always a cool thing) because this represented the first report of parasitic geohelminths in mummies from this area dating to this time period (18th-19th century). We also found lots of really cool mites along with their eggs, and we were able to discuss differential preservation of parasite eggs within mummy contexts because we found underdeveloped T. trichiura eggs. The discovery of these underdeveloped eggs coupled with encountering these eggs in groups of 2, 3, or in one case 9, led us to conclude that we had rehydrated material that had once had a female T. trichiura embedded within it. As the gravid (i.e. full of eggs) female decomposed, the eggs preserved inside of the mummy, but were never able to embryonate. This discovery highlights a problem that one only encounters when dealing with mummies as archaeoparasitological analysis of coprolites (desiccated feces) or latrine/privy/sewer/water closet sediments will only yield eggs that are more developmentally advanced because they were passed by the female and subsequently by the depositor of the feces. Hence, people who study mummy parasites must be able to recognize parasite eggs that are underdeveloped in addition to recognizing their fully-developed counterparts.

We sent this paper to our co-authors in Lithuania and everyone gave the manuscript the green light for submission. We chose to submit our paper to the International Journal for Paleopathology (henceforth known as "IJPP"). Before March had even rolled around we were anxiously awaiting reviewer comments. I'll spare you the details of the reviewer comments (both the constructive ones and the ones that merely demonstrated the reviewer's complete lack of familiarity with basic archaeoparasitological methodologies and concepts). The take-home here is that I got my baptism under fire as an author undergoing the peer-review process.

This may have been my first paper, but I wasn't completely naive when it came to the process. I had been told (or more precisely "warned") about how one could receive scathing reviews or about how reviewers weren't always well-suited to critique the work that they were reading. I was prepared to have a thick skin and to take every comment as a device for perfecting our paper. I was prepared to make both minor and major changes and to accept the criticism from people I assumed to be much more experienced than myself. What I was not prepared for were the asinine comments that served no purpose other than to point out "errors" that didn't really exist. I quickly learned that some of the reviewers could in no way be classified as my "peers", much less as experts in the field if they didn't understand some of the most fundamental concepts of the discipline. It was an odd experience, to say the least.

To balance out the oddness, we did have some really great comments from reviewers as well. We were asked to revise and resubmit. (Which is what every author wants to hear!) We made the changes. The paper went from a case study to a brief communication and we dropped all of the information about the mites. (Something for another paper someday.) We re-submitted and after a few weeks, the paper came back with additional reviewer comments and we were asked to make more dramatic changes and to resubmit again. We made said changes, shifting the focus of the article more toward the taphonomic aspects of the paper. We again, resubmitted. We were met with an additional request to revise and resubmit. By the end of it all, we had a very different looking manuscript than we had begun with, but we had a great article that was about to be published, which made all of the hassle worthwhile.

After editorial corrections and approving galley proofs, it finally happened. In August, a whole half of a year after the initial submission, I saw my name as first author on my first ever peer-reviewed scientific article. My first piece of primary literature will forever be cited as "Morrow et al., 2014". That's a good feeling!

The Moral of the Story
Sometime, it's okay to be a "late bloomer" as a scientist. I may not have had a publication as an undergraduate or even as a master's student, but my first one really was special. My first one taught me the skill of navigating the submission process as I was the corresponding author in charge of submission and communication with my co-authors. It taught me the importance of diplomacy and collaboration as I was in charge of coordinating revision efforts. It taught me patience, that the review process takes time whether you spend weeks or years preparing a manuscript. Most importantly, it taught me to handle idiotic comments in tactful, diplomatic language without buckling to the whims of reviewers who are blatantly incorrect in their assertions. (And, of course, it taught me to take constructive criticism...providing that it is, in fact, constructive...and use it as the wet stone to sharpen the blade of an incredible manuscript.) I'm so thankful that this particular experience was my first experience with peer-reviewed publication as bonafide scientist. Here's to many more in my future!

The article can be found online in all of it's full-color glory here if you are interested.

Ha! You thought I forgot about your sneak previews, didn't you! Fear not, faithful readers, for I shall never let you down! I can't disclose much until things actually get published, but here's a few topics covered by some of my "works in progress". In no particular order:

-Lack of parasites from embalming jars containing the remains of members of a very prominent Italian family. [Submitted.]

-Parasites from coprolites out of Medieval burials. [Just resubmitted this one for publication on Friday!

-Insects from an Italian mummy who is now a saint...making the insect remains "holy relics". (True story.) [In revision with co-authors.]

-Pollen/Dietary analysis of Lithuanian mummies. [Working on a manuscript.]

-Parasites from 1,200-1,400 year-old coprolites sealed beneath an adobe floor in a cave in Mexico. [Funding pending.]

-New methods for recovering parasite information from previously un-utilized source materials. [Funding pending.]

-Analyses of mites from European mummies. [Analysis ongoing.]

-Analysis of sediments from a sod house wall. [Analysis scheduled for later this semester.]

-Pollen and possible parasite analysis from a 8,000-9,000 year old Brazilian burial site. [Analysis scheduled for the Spring.]

-An assessment of the efficiency of flotation for pollen recovery out of karstic soils. [Analysis scheduled for the Spring.]

-A comparative review of archaeoparasitiological methods in contemporary literature. [Ongoing work on a manuscript.]

-Lice collected from a pre-clovis cave. [Waiting for samples.]

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Officially an Author (Part I): Announcing My First Scientific Book

Author copies are in, so everything feels very official. My new book has been published since August, but my three complementary author copies just came in early September. I thought it would be good to give a little information about my book for anyone wanting to know more! :)

First of all, the book is titled: The Biology and Identification of the Coccidia (Apicomplexa) of Turtles of the World. This book has been a long time in the making. The back-story for this book begins with a young biologist in her first year of graduate school trying hard to come up with a topic for her thesis. She had her mind made up about becoming a herpetologist (person who studies reptiles and amphibians), but she had a hobby-like fascination with parasites. She did a quick Google Scholar search one day for "reptile parasite" and started sifting through scientific papers. Her eyes were drawn to a paper titled: "Eimeria trachemydis n. sp.(Apicomplexa: Eimeriidae) and other eimerians from the red-eared slider, Trachemys scripta elegans (Reptilia: Testudines), in northcentral Texas". The authors were Steve Upton and Chris McAllister.

As you've probably guessed by now, the woman in the story is, in fact, the woman speaking to you now. My first thought upon seeing this title was, "Okay, I know what apicomplexans are, but what is this weird family?" I read further seeing only morphological terms that were totally Greek to me and finding another then-unfamiliar term...coccidian. I felt overwhelmed and excited and intrigued all at once. These sounded like cool parasites, but just what the heck were they??? Google to the rescue. Before my eyes lay page after page on these amazing little protozoans. I was sold. I would work with turtle parasites for my thesis. The only problems were that we didn't have a herpetologist or a parasitologist at my university!

I eventually put together my thesis proposal and submitted it to my committee for approval. Despite my lack of access to a local an expert in herpetology or in parasitology, my committe approved my project. I planned on collecting red-eared sliders from a university-owned pond, housing them until they pooped, collecting their poop, and looking for these coccidian things in the poop. Simple. Straightforward. All of the other words that wrongfully describe this type of work.

While trying to follow the unfamiliar language and protocols, I came to the realization that I needed help. I looked back at the paper that had made me want to work with these as-of-yet-non-existent parasites. My answer became clear. I wrote to the authors. One of the authors has to this day never responded. The other responded within a day or two of me sending out a cry for help. Dr. Upton was excited and more than willing to help me. He gave me lots of great advice and several tips on how to tweek what I was doing. He also provided me with a few papers to help me along and slowly the project started to come together. I was still having trouble, though, and one day I just stopped hearing from him. I was afraid I had said something wrong or dumb. After a while, I decided to e-mail another name that had popped up on many of the papers I had been reading.

I sent a hopefully-not-transparently-desperate e-mail to Dr. Don Duszynski asking, again, for help. The response I got back was amazing. Duszynski not only answered my questions and helped me a LOT with the project, he also invited me to help him to write a monograph compiling all of the known literature on turtle coccidia. I was astounded. How could this guy, this HUGE name in coccidian biology possibly want me to co-author a book with him? I was a nobody. Unpublished. A very green graduate student. A person who hadn't even heard of a coccidian a year ago. And he wanted me to help?! It was a tremendous honor that I didn't feel I deserved to have. Perhaps that is why he asked in the first place, because he knew I would work hard to make up for my lack of knowledge. Or maybe he just needed someone who could put all the data into a word document so that he didn't have to do anything outside of the interpretive writing. Either way, I was in.

I later learned that Dr. Upton had passed away. I was deeply saddened that I never got to meet him in person, but I was happy to have known him via e-mail. I was so lucky to have had all of his help. He was an incredible person to take the time to help me, especially while knowing he didn't have a lot of time left himself. I will always owe some of my success to him for his guidance in those early stages of my career. I'm so grateful for his kindness and for the passion he had for coccidia.

My thesis work hit many roadblocks, most of which were associated with not having the proper equipment to do what I was looking to do. In order to graduate (though a year later than planned), I had to change my thesis topic. However, I tried in vain to continue the turtle coccidia project as an independent study. I also maintained my correspondences with Don and worked on the turtle coccidia monograph on the side. Despite my change in thesis topic, Don insisted that I accompany him to a parasite conference held an hour from where I lived at the time. "Why not?" I thought.

On a warm, sunny day in April, a vehicle pulled up to a loading dock outside of my university and Don Duszynski met with me for the first time in person after almost a year of e-mails. With him was Dr. George Cain, with whom I quickly bonded over a love for acting and German sausage. (Yeah, we stopped at Fischer's Meat Market in Muenster, Texas on the way...)

After an hour, we arrived at the conference. I remember liking the food, though I can't really remember what exactly I ate that night. Then I stayed up talking and meeting all sorts of new people until the wee hours of the morning. The next day was filled with talks about an amazing array of different parasites. The evening brought a fancy spread of cheeses and a great diversity of wine to enjoy while checking out all of the awesome parasite posters. Later came the business meeting, which marked my first attendance at such a thing. It was again followed by making new friends and conversing with people passionate about parasites until 2 or 3 in the morning.

The last day ended after a few more talks and I left knowing that my application to the University of Texas-Arlington didn't matter anymore. I had been converted from an aspiring herpetologist to an aspiring parasitologist.

It was at that very meeting where I met my now-major professor, Dr. Karl Reinhard, and began thinking about archaeoparasitology as more than just a long, fancy word. I also met others who would go on to serve as members of my committee, Dr. Scott Gardner and Dr. John Janovy.

A year later, when I attended the meeting for the second time, I drove to the conference on my own and had a similarly awesome experience. By that time I had officially been accepted into UNL and would be beginning my PhD program the following fall.

After graduating, getting married, moving to a new state, and beginning my PhD work, it became difficult to focus on finishing the monograph. My co-author's life was equally (if not more so) busy at the time, so we each worked when we could on what we could. After almost four years (almost halfway through my PhD program at this point) we finally managed to pull everything together. I began working on figures and discussion paragraphs that would see numerous (necessary) edits from my co-author. We decided to go with Elsevier as our publisher and the "monograph" became a "book". Before I knew it, I was getting a contract in the mail and scouring each line. My co-author, a man who has written many such books, called me to discuss the contract in detail. It was an incredible learning experience for which I will be eternally grateful.

Just before the final proofs came in, my adviser encouraged me to tell our department about my accomplishment. I wasn't really sure about how to go about "professional bragging", but I did know that this book was going to be important for me to publicize. I asked Patty Swanson, the woman who knows all things (or more precisely one of the many women who know all things in our department...we have great people!), and she put me in touch with our communications associate, Mekita Rivás. I had a wonderful interview with Mekita and she took a few pictures of me next to my favorite microscope (a.k.a. The Beauty). Later, I read the excellent article she wrote for our departmental newsletter. A few friends subsequently posted links to the article on Facebook, which was pretty cool! A week or so later I saw a link to my article pop up on my newsfeed. Thinking it was a little odd, I scrolled back up to find that the story had been picked up by UNL Today and there was my face right on the university's webpage! (Here's a link, if you are interested.)

It was shortly after the interview that we transitioned from calling our work a monograph to calling it a book. (Also, in case you didn't notice, the computer screen behind me is showing a beautiful Ascaris egg from a Lithuanian mummy rather than a coccidian....then again, I'm sure you already knew that!) Later that day I had professors in two of my classes mention that they had seen my article. My Portuguese instructor said I was "famous"...and I certainly felt like a rock star that day!

By mid-summer we had the cover worked out...I posted a copy of it on the bulletin board in the dining hall of the station where I worked. I had a few people express interest and a few congratulate me even though the book wasn't quite finished yet. I was amazed at the support from faculty and students that seemed to be surrounding me. Don't get me wrong, I certainly felt that the book was important, but I was overwhelmed by the number of other people who actually recognized its importance. (There's more parasitophiles out there than I sometimes realize!)

Just before I left the country to do field work in Brazil for the better part of a month, the final proofs were submitted. Once I returned home it was only a matter of days before I realized that it was official. It really was finished. I Googled "Morrow Coccidia" and the first thing that popped up was it. The realization that it had ACTUALLY HAPPENED hit me all at once. I was beyond elated to be able to officially, after all of these years, be able to call myself a real scientist (because real scientists publish) and a real author (...which also have to publish to be real, right?)

It would be several more weeks before my author copies would make their way to my mailbox. I checked everyday (sometimes twice a day out of overzealous anticipation) hoping to find a package with my three copies. They finally arrived while I was out of town for a parasite conference (go figure?!) and my wonderful husband texted me to announce their arrival mere hours after my professor and I had left town. They were the first thing on my mind once I was back home. I already knew where the copies would be going. The first one I opened to page #17 and drew a circle around the page number in sharpie. This was my copy. The second I placed on a shelf to await its new owner. My parents' copy was secured until their arrival this November. I opened the third copy and took out my nice pen. In the open space on the first page I wrote "To the Harold Manter Lab of Parasitology" and then a short message followed by my autograph. Hehe...autograph....that's too cool! :)

And now you know the whole story...or at least my part in the story. I am beholden to Dr. Don Duszynski for taking me, an unheard of graduate student from a tiny university, and teaching me all about writing, editing, editing, and more editing, contract negotiation, cover design, and publishing. It was an honor to work with him as both a friend and a colleague long before I began to build a professional name for myself.

I am beyond humbled by the outpouring of support from my friends, family, and colleagues. I'd especially like to take a moment to thank my close friends who maintained our friendship even when I was too caught up in working on this book to go out for a drink and to those who brought me tea while I sat immersed in a blanket of solitude tapping away at the keyboard. More than anyone, I want to thank my husband for putting up with me when I was stressed or distant in my zone of concentration and for being the most encouraging, reassuring, and inspiring spouse there ever was. (Seriously Love, this would have been tough without you! And also thanks for being my below!)

Note the awesome "Parasitophile" shirt from this year's
Rocky Mountain Conference of Parasitologists.
(I may have had an influence in designing this shirt...)

Monday, September 8, 2014

A Weekend in Western Nebraska: Attending the Rocky Mountain Conference of Parasitologists

Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of last weekend was a blur of exciting presentations, reunions, new friends, and amazing food. I'm talking, of course, about the recent convening of the Rocky Mountain Conference of Parasitologists (RMCP) held at the Cedar Point Biological Station (CPBS) just outside of Ogallala. This year's conference was small, both in terms of membership and in number of presentations/posters, but it was still a good meeting. Below are the highlights, at least from my perspective.

My major professor and I taught the morning's classes and left for RMCP around 1pm. We grabbed Starbucks on the way out and I ate lunch on the road. The four hour drive was filled with wonderful conversations about the semester that lies ahead and with the words of Mitch Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven emitted by the CD player of his blue Baja. We grabbed more coffee at our favorite little place in Gothenburg before hitting the last stretch of road to the station.

We were surprised to discover that we were among the first people to arrive for the conference. I took my things to the room where I already knew I was staying and went to see the kitchen staff while my professor got settled in to his cabin. The familiar smell of awesome emanated from the kitchen as soon as I stepped into the dining hall. I was greeted by the smiling faces of two close friends and we chatted until they had to put out the hors d'oeuvres. It is traditional to serve hors d'oeurvres rather than dinner at this conference unlike the other annual conference I attend. I suppose that's due to the later arrival of most attendees. The hors d'oeuvres this year were spectacular. I walked up to the serving bar to see an array of fancy crackers and white cheeses surrounding plump, green grapes. To the right of this was a tray of caprese...little bits of mozzerella, tomato, and a basil leaf skewered on a toothpick and drizzled with balsamic vinegar. Just to the other side of that was a hot pan of Italian meatballs with warm smokes still rising from the freshly cooked delicacies. On an adjacent table lay a round tray of dark chocolate-dipped strawberries. To the left of the strawberries were small gingersnap cookies with vanilla frosting drizzled delicately over them in a zig-zag pattern. As I look at the spread before me, I knew that this was destined to be an awesome weekend! (I apologize in advance for my lack of food-porn from all of the meals this weekend...I will, however, flood you later with pictures of a particularly special dessert!)

The next morning came early. Breakfast was served at 7am and consisted of sausage, eggs, fruit, pineapple and coconut oatmeal, and peaches and cream french toast. The presentations began at 9am with four excellent graduate students (myself included) delivering their research to an eager and fully-awake audience. My own talk (which you can find here if you so choose) concluded with a long string of questions and was followed by a break during which we got cookies, veggies and hummus, crackers with cheese, and fruit to go with our coffee and/or tea. The next round of talks were comprised of two undergraduate student presentations, one of which had some beautiful SEM and TEM photos. By the time these had finished, it was near noon. Lunch was comprised of beef or veggie enchiladas, cabalcitas, and a freshly made pineapple and black bean salsa. This was, of course, offered with tortilla chips and a diverse salad bar. For dessert, the staff prepared root beer floats and I couldn't stop myself from indulging.

Lunch was followed by a memorial faculty presentation given by my professor (who was also this year's president) who spoke at great length on the subject of archaeoparastology as a discipline. I was super excited about this topic for lots of reasons, but it was amazing to see how entranced the crowd was (well, save for a few parasitologists who were ready to move on to the social hour, it seems) despite his accidental time slot overshoot. Upon learning of his overshoot, my professor had been embarrassed as he hadn't realized he had gone over time. It makes me smile that he was so passionate about his work and so excited to tell others about it that he lost track of time. In talking with other students, we all agreed that we aspire for such passion in our own work as we grow into professionals.

After another break with yummy snacks, we returned to the basement of the lodge for another session of shorter faculty presentations. These were obviously excellent in both their construction and in their content. These presentations were followed by the student poster session held in the adjacent building. There were only three posters, all of them graduate students. My own poster was among them, taking up the least space on the wall, but clade with beautiful photos of Ascaris lumbricoides eggs, malformed Trichuris trichiura eggs, and the lower half of a mummy. (If you are interested, you can get a pdf of the poster here.)

A banquet dinner was served after the poster session. The tables were set with real wine glasses at every center and heavy porcelain plates were waiting to be filled with shrimp scampi (or a vegetarian version...I guess that's just called "scampi"?), a melt-in-your-mouth garlic cheddar biscuit (or 5), and the ever-present salad bar assemblage. It was, however, the dessert that stole the show. Our amazing kitchen manager (/my best friend from college) created chocolate cupcakes with cream cheese frosting. On top of each one was a hand-pipped parasite silhouette made of dark chocolate. They where adorable and perfect. Lots of photos of this perfection follow. 

Parasitophiles, feel free to nerd out right now...

I am hookworm, hear me...Rawr! cute! 

Oh no! We are almost out of cupcakes!!! What do we do???

Oh good! Airicca saves the day with more cupcakes!

Protozoan love!
Okay, so it turned out upside down in the photo, but
the one on the left was my cupcake...I <3

 Karl grabbed a tick! And then, he ate it.

 Another great tick shot next to an elegant little cercaria. 

How many can you name?

(Left to right, top to bottom: tick, Trichinella nurse cell, Plasmodium in cell, Trichinella nurse cell, small worm [nematode], 
Plasmodium in cell, hookworm's bucal cavity, 
cercaria, top-view of Schistosoma egg,
small worm [nematode], Giardia, Demodex (follicle mite),
cercaria, Schistosoma egg, mystery top-view.)

Hey look!!! Coccidia!!! Oh, yeah...and other stuff too.

 After dinner, I took my wine glass with me to the basement for the last presentation of the day. This was the second memorial faculty lecture given by a woman who studies the genetic histories of elasmobranch (that's sharks, skates, and rays, if you were wondering) tapeworms. If you've never looked at marine cestodes (tapeworms), google them. Right now. Go on. I'll wait. that you're back...aren't they just amazingly beautiful and complex?! If I wasn't already enamored by archaeoparasitology, I would be looking for any way possible to get into studying these little guys. I mean, WOW! Seriously, I am more and more amazed by them every time I sit through a presentation on this topic. After the presentation came the social hour (or a few) in which we conversed the night away while munching on the vestiges of the day's meals lovingly left out for us late-night snackers. It was a great night filled with great discussions with great people. :)

The final day of the conference began early again with a breakfast bar presenting sausage, eggs, blueberries and peaches oatmeal, fruit, and pumpkin french toast. There would be only a single faculty presentation after breakfast, but I was especially excited for it. The topic covered a recent range extension of a coccidian parasite in Eastern box turtles. I was especially excited for this one because I recently co-authored a book about turtle coccidia (find it here) that was finally published last month. (After only 4 years of work! :p) The presenter unexpectedly volunteered me to help answer questions after his talk and even motioned for me to stand up. I did not stand, however, not because I didn't want to, but because I didn't want to do so during the applause he had earned for his presentation and it would have just been weird to stand after everyone stopped, forcing them to question whether they should begin clapping again. As you would expect, he didn't really need my help in answering questions, but I did add in a few additional comments to some of the questions after he was finished talking.

Book at the Sod House Museum
Look! It's by John Carter!
Next, it was upstairs for our last round of snacks and to get prepared for our business meeting. The meeting was quicker than usual. Awards were given out, nominations turned to new officer positions, and the proceedings of past and future meetings were discussed. The meeting concluded with a passing of the gavel from the president and the president-elect. This was ceremoniously passed to the tune of actual bagpipes. This ceremony may or may not have included the skipping of the two presidents down the aisle and back. ;) It was glorious.

With the meeting adjourned, we all loaded up our vehicles and headed out. Some grabbed lunches on the way, while others at the last CPBS lunch of sandwiches and left-over snacks. My professor and I headed back to our Gothenburg coffee shop and made a stop in at the adjacent Sod House Museum before the long drive back home. We spoke of the conference and of future projects for a while, and then we attempted to finish our audiobook. 

The Moral of the Story
As you've already read, the conference was a good one....and the food rocked! I'll leave you with this little haiku I wrote for the business meeting, but didn't get a chance to share:

Parasites abound
Happy faces everywhere
So much love is here