Most people react to the mention of parasites with disgust — a wrinkled nose, a disdainful frown. But not assistant professor of biology Meghan Duffy. When conversation turns to Daphnia, the planktonic water fleas she began researching while an undergrad at Cornell, her eyes sparkle and a dreamy smile drifts across her face. She has spent most of the last decade employing the bugs to study the nature of parasite epidemics — how do they start, what are their effects, how do they end? These are the questions she probes in her office and lab on the first floor of the Cherry Emerson building, with the help of eager students and, occasionally, her baby daughter Ruth.
Boats and beakers: Normally we actually have a kayak in the lab. It’s just a convenient place to store it. It’s our lab kayak. We have to go out and collect Daphnia from natural populations, and a kayak is really convenient. We sample them from ponds and other reservoirs around here. Dylan [Grippi, one of the lab’s grad students] is out in the kayak today in Athens, which sounds really great until you think about being out in waders in 100 degree weather and then it’s no longer really fun.
Daphnia devotees: They are an organism where, when people start working on them, they tend to stick. You end up brainwashed or something. … There was a speaker who came through this spring and one of my students met him and he was like, “He didn’t know Daphnia!” He was a little offended. I thought that was funny.
What’s limnology? It’s the study of lakes, ponds, streams, rivers, things like that. I’m interested, essentially, in processes at the population level, in evolutionary questions and how populations are affected by disease. So I really like knowing what my population is. And in a lake, you have very clear boundaries — you know that’s your population. Whereas if you’re looking at various terrestrial species or marine species, it’s much harder to say what your population is.
Piedmont Park outreach: They have summer camps over there. We have [the kids] sample the pond that’s there, Lake Clara Meer. … They collect the plankton and put them in a little bottle, like we do when we’re sampling. Then we set up all these microscopes on the dock and show the kids how to look through the samples and how to identify the major groups — and we start this off by having them guess what’s in the lake. Some of them are like “Sharks!” And “Trash!” is usually something they come up with, and I’m like, “That’s true, but what about living things?” We’ve done this for a few years now and kids who were at the camp before will remember and they’ll say, “There’s algae and there’s zooplankton!”
Great lake: I did my PhD work in Michigan and there’s a lake there that’s probably my favorite lake. It’s just a little lake — Warner Lake. There was a working sheep farm next to it, so we would drive through the sheep farm to get to the lake to sample and the sheep would be onshore making their funny sheep noises. And they had a llama that guarded the sheep.
It’s aliiiive!: They’re called chemostats — they’re basically our algae cultures. This is the part where it looks the most like science, right? Because it’s bubbling stuff. But it’s just algae that we grow to feed to our Daphnia.
Sneaky scientists: When we’re out sampling we never say we work with parasites, because some people get really concerned if we’re out at a pond and we say, “We’re here to sample parasites!” But parasites are a totally normal part of all populations. Everything gets infected by something — by more than one something, usually.
Baby Ruth: My husband [Silas Alben] is in the math department here. We were just able to get her a spot in day care and she’ll start soon. Until then, we’ve had to trade off watching her. She comes to all of my lab meetings and usually falls asleep. Occasionally she’ll make some interesting noises that we like to try to interpret as being comments on the paper. So I have some baby paraphernalia here, in my effort to keep her entertained. … The main reason I don’t get work done when she’s here is because everyone wants to stop by and say hi to the baby, not that she’s screaming. She’s a very easygoing baby. She’s either totally going into science or she’s going to overcorrect and be some bohemian artsy sort. We’ll see.