RU Biology major embarks on ESA Fellowship and exciting research opportunity

Truly passionate about parasite biology, Radford University senior Dan Metz will leave soon to pursue his unique passion for inquiry and understanding in a completely new environment.

Metz is one of three national recipients of a 2014 SEEDS Undergraduate Research Fellowship from the Ecological Society of America. He will spend the summer in the salt flats and along the shoreline of Southern California and in the laboratory of the Marine Science Institute of the University of California Santa Barbara. With faculty mentor Ryan Hechinger, associate research biologist at the Institute, they will work on a self-designed project titled, "Development of an epidemiological model of facultative parasite infection in the lined shore crab, Pachygrapsus crassipes."

"Long before I came to college, I have been interested in parasites. There is a certain beauty and power in the relationship they have with their hosts," said Metz. "Now I get to do a job that excites me and contribute to science."

As he prepares for this significant departure and adventure, Metz recognizes both his good fortune and the opportunity before him.

"The education and experience I have had here at RU has given me this chance to go work with Dr. Hechinger, whose works and about whom I have been reading since before I came to RU. He is so well respected in the field. To me, he is almost like a rock star," said Metz.

Gene amplification, scanning electron and phase contrast microscopy and mathematical modeling are some of the experiences Metz has gained at RU as an undergraduate that he will engage as he fulfills the $12,000 fellowship.

Metz's opportunity is underwritten by the ESA, an international organization representing approximately 10,000 American and international scientists. As a SEEDS fellow, Metz wrote the research proposal, will conduct the original ecological research, analyze results and present at the 2015 ESA annual meeting. The ESA is an organization that promotes ecological science through communication among ecologists, the scientific community and relevant policy-makers. The ESA raises public awareness of the importance of ecological science and ensures its appropriate use in environmental decision making.


Dan Metz

Metz has been working in the Aquatic Biology Lab with Associate Professor Jeremy Wojdak to research a group of trematode parasite species that live as larvae in snails in local ponds and streams and ultimately infect a wide spectrum of wildlife species, including amphibians, mammals and birds. Their project is featured as part of RU's Research in Action series.

Through surveys of the lined shore crabs and the water column in which they live and lab work to screen them for infection, Metz hopes to determine the prevalence, intensity and virulence of an unidentified facultative parasite. Metz thinks that understanding this pathogen as a form of pollution could help alleviate a persistent threat to fisheries and aquaculture. 

"I have the chance to explore a system that no one has looked at yet as closely as I can now. I have the chance to be at the forefront of science and hopefully will develop an understanding of the parasite's transmission and possibly predict its infection rate," he said.

About his novel and determined pursuit of knowledge about parasites, he said. "More than half of the known species of living things are parasites. They are so good at making their hosts do what they want. They cause behavioral and biological changes, and can almost drive their hosts around like a car."

Metz thinks the study of parasite biology and transmission has implications for medicine and biotechnology. "The power of these single-celled organisms suggests to me that we need to study them further. If I can fine tune an equation and make it generally applicable, maybe I can help prevent the spread of infections like Staph in hospitals or in the environment as we are doing here."

May 29, 2014