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UConn professor travels the world looking for parasites

STORRS, Conn. --They are nematodes, isopods, barnacles and leeches.

They sit in ethanol-filled test tubes on shelves and inside file cabinets in the Torrey Life Sciences Building at the University of Connecticut.

These parasites are locked away in halls decorated with various maps and pictures from around the globe. It is here that Dr. Janine Caira, an ecology and evolutionary biology professor at UConn, sits planning out her next trip to an exotic country to find new species of sharks and rays and the unknown parasites they house.

"She infects her students with her enthusiasm," said Kent Holsinger, head of the ecology and evolutionary biology department. "I can't meet many people that get me excited about parasites."

Her research has prompted the Board of Trustees to recognize her as a Distinguished Board of Trustees Professor for her dedication and commitment to the university.

Born in Montreal, Canada, Caira studied zoology at the University of British Columbia (UBC). She said she was originally going to the school for the nearby ski resorts, but never actually skied because she found more excitement in her research.

When she was hired in 1985, UConn was one of the few institutions offering jobs in the parasitology field. Since then, Caira has become a global leader in her field and has helped build one of the world's most celebrated ecology and evolutionary biology departments. She's traveled the world with her students on expeditions to places such as the Gulf of California, Columbia and the Caribbean. She's also traveled to Madagascar, Thailand, Japan, Senegal, Brazil and Malaysian Borneo. In the process, she's described 82 new species and 13 new genera of tapeworms, Holsinger said.

"Who would have thought that our biggest challenge would be handling all these new species of tapeworms," Caira said.

Caira has focused much of her research on tapeworms found inside sharks and rays to uncover new information on the evolutionary process. By studying parasites, Caira has shed light on the relationship between tapeworms and their host. The host evolves to fight off the parasite and the parasite evolves around the host's new defense system to survive.

"She lives, eats and breathes her research and she is dedicated to her students," Holsinger said.

Funded by various grant programs, Caira has created opportunities for her students to travel with her and collect specimens in various sites around the world. Expeditions can last between two weeks and four months. The researchers usually find shelter in tents and sometimes hotels -- but electricity and running water are considered luxuries in these areas.

"I won't bring anybody into the field who doesn't have a sense of humor," Caira said.

She carefully picks her research team since these trips are not made for everyone. She also never brings students to places without scoping them out first. With safety in mind, her brother, an on-hand emergency medical technician from Los Angeles, often joins her on these trips, said Holsinger.

"Somehow, in these places where a white woman may be out of place, and may be in danger, she just goes in and talks to locals and gets things done," Holsinger said.

In the wild, many variables can change Caira's plans, but she leads her students through tough terrain. Carrie Fyler, an ecology and evolutionary biology graduate student, has traveled to Senegal with Caira twice and appreciates the attention the students receive on the trips.

"We are all looking out for each other," Fyler said. "One of the reasons I go out in the field is because I know Janine will take care of us."

Out in the field, Caira and her students often visit fish markets and pay local fishermen for their sharks and rays. It is with the fishermen that the team must cooperate if they are to get the fish they seek. Caira is fluent in French, but always has the company of an interpreter to help communicate with the locals.

Once the team has the sharks, they simply clean the meat and take the guts for examination. The rest of the fish is given back to the fisherman or eaten if the food supply is low.

"Most fishermen look at you funny when you offer to pay them for fish guts," Caira said.

But it is in the fish guts that the parasites thrive. This is where many of their discoveries are found.

"It's long hours and hard work," Fyler said. "We're at the beach from sunrise to sunset."

Caira has discovered strange species of tapeworms that suck the host's blood. She even found a shark with eels inside its heart muscles. How they got there is uncertain, but she knows no one has ever seen these things before.

"We're just trying to appreciate the diversity of life on earth," Fyler said. "It's interesting to study a group that people know so little about. I'm answering questions that no one has approached before."

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