Virginia softball player Sarah Tacke found it a little difficult to lift weights and run sprints this summer. That’s because she was busy attending lecture and lab in her month-long summer class, Ecology of Wildlife Diseases. The class was held at the University of Virginia’s Mountain Lake Biological Station, a field research and teaching facility located in the forest of the Appalachian Mountains in southwestern Virginia.
Question: What did you study in Ecology of Wildlife Diseases?
Tacke: We studied a lot of parasites and more specifically, parasite interaction. We would have lecture everyday and lab in the afternoon. We didn’t have tests but had a final project where we had to give a presentation and write a paper.
Question: What was your final project on?
Tacke: Mine was on monarch butterflies and this little protozoan parasite that affects them. The parasite doesn’t really harm the butterflies too much. I looked at their immune defenses when they change from caterpillars to the pupa, when they change into metamorphosis. My teacher gave me butterflies to take home, so I drove them to Charlottesville and released them. It was very exciting.
Question: Did this experience help direct you with your career goals?
Tacke: It really opened my eyes to different things that you can do in biology. The program really let us learn how much of an up-and-coming area disease ecology is and I really became interested in the behavior part, like why things effect other insects.
Question: What was your favorite part of the experience?
Tacke: The best part was that it was such a family. Our class was only seven kids and three teachers. You got a ton of one-on-one time. It was just a really great experience overall. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Question: What is your favorite bug?
Tacke: There are these things called Gordian worms and they affect beetles and crickets. They somehow get into their brain, and when the worms are ready to reproduce, they make the bugs go into the water, which kills them, so the worm can emerge from the gut of the bug. They are super long. When you open them up the worm takes up almost the entire abdomen of the bug.
Question: Were you able to stay in shape?
Tacke: I found these 30 lbs. dumbbells that one of the chef’s had on his cabin porch. So I was using those for about a week. Then I found this old rickety weight bench in a storage closet. So I used that for the rest of the time. It was pretty limited. And I was trying to do sprints, but the only straight piece of grass I could find was in between these two rows of cabins.
Question: What did you do for the Fourth of July?
Tacke: We had a pig roast and an annual boat race, and our boat was full of parasites, obviously, because we were the disease class. There was one other class, but a lot of research going on. No cell phone service, so I was out of touch.
Question: What else did you do to pass the time?
Tacke: One weekend we went kayaking down the New River. There was a bunch of different hikes you can go on. It was actually the place where they filmed Dirty Dancing. That was kind of their claim to fame.
Question: Any other good stories?
Tacke: They called me Simba for the whole month. I had this T-shirt that had lion cubs on it that I wore. Then there was a rock in front of the main lab building and we would lie on it in the sun. This girl in the class said it looked like the rock from The Lion King. And also my hair is kind of crazy, kind of like a mane. So I was Simba for the month.