This fall, Sarah Budischak joined the faculty of the W.M. Keck Science Department as an assistant professor of biology. She is an ecologist who studies infectious disease—specifically, how different environmental contexts affect organisms’ responses to parasitic infection. This exploration has brought her into close contact with worms, mice, and free-ranging African buffalo. We spoke with her about the origins of infectious disease, how parasites compete for resources, and a club called the Parasite Ladies.
Scripps College: Welcome to Claremont! What drew you to Scripps, and what are you most excited about in your new role as assistant professor of biology?
Sarah Budischak: I can’t wait to meet Scripps students and share my excitement about infectious diseases and the roles they play in the world. I went to a small liberal arts college myself, Davidson College, and really appreciated the interactions and research opportunities I had with the professors there. More generally, I want to help facilitate a learning space where students can make connections between science and their lives (e.g., health, policy, conservation) while learning skills that will translate across disciplines, such as writing.
SC: You mentioned writing: We all expect scientists to be good at math, but you also have a background in scientific writing. Why is it so important to have science students develop their writing skills?
SB: It’s like that old saying about trees falling in the woods—if you do great science but don’t communicate it to others, it’s like it never happened. Sharing scientific discoveries both with other scientists and the public is the only way they can do some good in the world. Good writing makes the thinking and motivation behind a study clear as well as describes its bigger-picture implications. Not only will focusing on these parts of a research project (rather than just the day-to-day protocols) yield more effective communication, it will also allow the students/researchers to think more broadly about the next big questions they should tackle.
SC: Can you tell us a little more about the big questions you are tackling in your field of disease ecology?
SB: Did you know that nearly 75 percent of emerging human infectious diseases originated in animals? Disease ecologists are an interdisciplinary bunch who study everything about infectious disease outside of what human and veterinary medicine traditionally covers, but we collaborate a lot with the public health community, too. Most animals (including people) are infected with multiple disease-causing organisms (parasites) at the same time. I study these “ecological communities” of parasites to determine how their combinations affect health and the spread of disease. For example, I recently collaborated with a team of public health researchers at Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands and at Princeton University to study worms and malaria in a human population where both infections are common. Just like cheetah and lion compete for prey, we found that malaria, which infects red blood cells, and blood-sucking worms compete for blood within their human hosts. When this competition is disrupted by deworming medicine, malaria infections may become more severe.
SC: You have a special relationship with free-ranging African buffalo. Can you tell us about that?
SB: African buffalo are amazing, smart animals—they have never been domesticated and are considered one of the “big five”—the most dangerous animals in Africa. They also carry bovine tuberculosis (bovine TB), a disease that was introduced to Africa in the 1880s and has spread across the continent, infecting multiple wildlife species, livestock, and people (it is closely related to bacteria-causing human TB). Accordingly, bovine TB is a big conservation, economic, and health concern. Thinking like a disease ecologist, I wanted to know how bovine TB interacts with other diseases the buffalo carry. Maybe treating them for worms would allow their immune systems to focus on fighting TB instead? I worked with a great team of researchers to test this hypothesis, and we found that it was partially true—deworming buffalo allows them to survive longer with TB, but deworming is not enough to lower their risk of getting TB.
SC: What six things do you think about when not focused on infectious disease and parasites?
SB: 1. My family! I have one-year-old daughter; a great, feminist husband who has been letting my career drive where we move; and a large, fantastic extended family.
- Food! I love cooking, farmers markets, and eating at local restaurants.
- Equal opportunity! I want this world to be a place where everyone has the opportunity to pursue their passions without discrimination, harassment, financial constraints, or other hindrances.
- The environment! We only have one planet, so suitability and conservation are really important to me.
- Ultimate Frisbee!
- The Parasite Ladies! It’s what my group of disease ecologist friends and colleagues from graduate school call ourselves. We support each other both personally and professionally. It’s wonderful to know that they are always there for me and will get just as excited about a gross botfly emergence video as I do.