Renaissance woman: Kelly Weinersmith on science, outreach and family

Graduate Division

Kelly Weinersmith recently completed her Ph.D. at UC Davis and is now a Huxley Fellow at Rice University in Houston, Texas. She studies the interactions between parasites, host behavior and ecosystem dynamics, using the California killifish and their brain-infecting trematode parasites as a model system. 

As an active science communicator, Weinersmith hosted BAH Fest last fall in conjunction with the Bay Area Science Festival and spoke at a UCSF “Women in Life Sciences” seminar. She is married to the comic artist Zach Weinersmith, creator of “Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.” (This interview has been edited and condensed)

Synapse: How did you decide to go into science?

Weinersmith: I thought I wanted to be a surgeon because I loved the show “ER.” I wish I had a better reason, but that’s what it was. 

I went to school as pre-med and then decided that I didn’t really want to work with people that much, so I thought maybe I’d be a veterinarian … and then I took an ecology class. I absolutely fell in love with it. I thought ecology was just a bunch of hippies playing in the woods, but the class I was taking was really mathematically rigorous. I realized you could make a living studying nature, and that was really amazing to me. I decided I really had to go to graduate school and become scientist.

In grad school, did you go straight into parasite ecology?

I figured out pretty early in my master’s degree that was I was interested in behavioral ecology, and it wasn’t until my Ph.D. that I became interested in how parasites change behavior. I remember the moment when I became interested in that topic—my advisor sent me an e-mail telling me that I should read these papers by Jaroslav Flegr who talked about parasites changing human behavior—it was love at first sight. From that moment, I’ve been studying how parasites manipulate host behavior, and it’s been awesome!

My research is all in the lab, so I’m fascinated by field work—what is it like?

It’s simultaneously awesome and then horrible and unpredictable. For example, to study my fish I work in a salt marsh reserve in Santa Barbara. When I go out to collect fish, it’s beautiful—ocean on one side, beautiful hills on the other side, the most amazing view you’ve ever seen. But the land itself is a salt marsh, so as you walk from one place to another you’re sinking in the mud—you spend the whole time just trying to yank your feet out. It’s good exercise, but it’s not how I envisioned field work. I feel lucky to be working in this amazing beautiful environment, but there are things you have to deal with.

Before working on parasites, I did a survey of a smallmouth bass population—we kept track of every male that was breeding. We were working on this lake in northern Wisconsin that was specifically a research site. 

People aren’t allowed to bring motor boats out there, so it’s very quiet and undisturbed. But the males start breeding really early in the season—sometimes it was still snowing when we were out snorkeling to get the data. We had to collect data for six to eight hours every day, and you had to keep swimming because otherwise you get too cold.

Do you need to continue traveling to California or are there local fish you can study in Texas?

I hope to continue to travel to California. You get a lot of information just by sitting on banks and watching the fish—you get new ideas about what questions you should be asking. But one reason I was so excited about this job was that Galveston Bay is about 30 minutes away, and there are two other killifish species out here that are infected by a very closely-related brain-infecting trematode parasite. It’s a chance to see how general brain-infecting parasites are in fish, how general their effects are and how important they are for ecosystem dynamics. It’s possible that in a lot of estuaries across North America, killifish—a really abundant food resource for lots of organisms—are controlled by a parasite, which is changing how they’re connected to different species in the ecosystem.

I have to ask, being a biomedical scientist: is there anything about the parasites you study—which control fish brains—that can be applied to human disease?

I also do lab work—I collaborate with Dr. Øyvind Øverli at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. I visit to do precision work like cutting the brains. He’s taught me how to look at particular regions of the brain and see what’s going on.

I’m really excited because Dr. Øverli just got funding to figure out how the parasite is manipulating the brain chemistry of the fish. We know that serotonergic and dopaminergic activity changes in the fish when it’s infected, and a lot of brain regions and neurotransmitters are conserved from fish to people. Figuring out how the parasite changes brain chemistry might give insight into how you can treat diseases that are caused by imbalances of neurotransmitters. We might be able to learn some lessons from this parasite that are useful for treating humans.

Shelley Adamo called parasites “evolutionary neuroscientists”—the idea is that they have millions of years of natural selection with their host. Parasites can do things to their host—changing their behavior or physiology—that are things that we can’t do in the lab yet. They might have a lot to teach us about how the brain works or how interactions between the brain and immune system influence behavior.

What’s it like transitioning from Ph.D. to being a Fellow?

It’s almost like being thrown into the deep end of the pool, but the nice thing is that I sort of get a trial run for a tenure-track faculty position. Hopefully when I do get a position, I’ll know exactly what I’m getting into. It’s been useful to figure out how to manage your schedule when you need to get your research and writing done, and you want to start mentoring students but also have to teach classes. There’s more to do but that’s basically the life of a professor.

You also have a big presence in the science communication world. How did you get into that?

I started with blogging. I kind of enjoyed doing it, but it felt like work. Then I started to do a podcast with “Science … Sort Of,” and now I’m a somewhat regular co-host. [Husband] Zach and I started our own podcast—”The Weekly Weinersmith.” I learned that I really love podcasting.

Outreach is kind of my hobby. Some people’s hobbies are mountain biking; for me, if I’m not doing science, I like to sit around with friends talking about it. Podcasting works really well for that—we just record the conversations we wanted to have anyway—and get to call it outreach.

You had a baby during graduate school—what was that like?

I was really nervous about it because I had heard a lot of horror stories about unsupportive advisors. I have been really amazed and really happy about how everyone has been. My advisor was really supportive, and I worked in other labs and those mentors were also really supportive and excited.

It was better than I thought it was going to be in terms of getting work done. I waited to have her until my writing year so I didn’t have to be running experiments but could stay home and write. I’m also really lucky because my husband works from home. Between the two of us, we’ve been able to split the childcare pretty close to 50–50. Biology makes it really hard to hit exactly 50–50. He really steps up and makes sure that he’s doing 50 percent, both because he really wants to and because we’re both concerned with making sure both of our careers stay on track.

Do you have any advice for young women in science?

How hard it is to have a kid in science really depends on your circumstances. Being at a university that’s really supportive is helpful. My husband and I thought “the moment will be right eventually,” but it was never really the right moment—that’s just life—so we just decided to go for it. I spoke to someone whose professor told her: “If you’re at the end of your life looking back, are you going to be sadder that you didn’t get tenure or that you didn’t have a kid?”—and now she has both.