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...)

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