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Caira 1998's "most outstanding parasitologist"
May 4, 1998

Janine Caira, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, has been named the most outstanding North American parasitologist for 1998.

The American Society of Parasitologists (ASP) will present Caira with its highest research award, the Henry Baldwin Ward Medal, at its 73rd international meeting in Hawaii in July.

Caira says the award is especially gratifying because her former and present students were instrumental in her selection.

"I am incredibly honored, and humbled, to have been selected to receive the Ward medal. Truly, in my case this recognition should be considered to be a team award because so much of the work on which it is based was done in collaboration with students and colleagues, all of whom exhibit a remarkable interest in tapeworms of sharks and rays," Caira says.

The annual award, named for the founder of both the ASP and the Journal of Parasitology, is given to a self-directed person who has gained a position of leadership in parasitological research in the middle of his or her career.

Caira's research focuses on the taxonomy and evolution of the tapeworms that parasitize the digestive system of sharks and rays, with the ultimate goal of understanding the relationships between these parasites and their ancient hosts. This work has taken her and her students on adventures to distant parts of the globe in search of tapeworms from previously unexamined species of sharks and rays. To date, her research suggests that each shark and ray species hosts an incredibly diverse fauna of tapeworms, most of which are specific to a particular shark or ray species and many of which are new to science.

Caira's colleagues and students say the award could not have been given to a more deserving recipient.

"The recognition Professor Caira has received as a result of this award by her primary professional society seems especially timely," says Gregory Anderson, professor and department head of ecology and evolutionary biology.

"She takes her teaching very seriously with undergraduates, with honors scholars, and with graduate students. She has an incredibly active research program funded with more than $1.2 million from external sources, connecting with colleagues and taking Janine and her students to most of the continents of the world. And she contributes service to the department, the college, the university and her profession at a level that is exhausting just to think about," Anderson says.

Caira's first Ph.D. student, Tim Ruhnke, was one of her former students who urged the ASP to honor her. Now an assistant professor at West Virginia State College, he says "My decision to work with her was one of the best decisions of my life." He told the committee how far she would go for biology and her students.

"She will go to any location, any time, under trying circumstances, to collect interesting host species. Some would question the sanity of a person who would at night brave a coastal Australian inlet known to harbor salt-water crocodiles to check a net for sharks. But the sharks were collected, and they were an important component to one of her student's master's degree research project," he wrote in a letter to the ASP in January.

Another Ph.D. student, Peter Olson, says Caira inspired him even though he decided to pursue molecular-based research outside her own research expertise. He is one of numerous students who sent letters to the ASP in support of her nomination.

"She has an innate ability to seamlessly maneuver between the roles of advisor, colleague and friend, and through example she increases the level of professionalism in her students," he wrote the ASP committee. "Her optimism for the discipline and for science in general have allowed me, and I suspect her other students as well, to approach some of academia's fundamental skills, such as authorship and grantsmanship, in a realistic manner without undue fear of rejection."

Kirsten Jensen says she came to America from Germany in 1993 with no background in parasitology, expecting to stay abroad for only one year. She was given a place in Caira's lab and, almost five years later, is still here, now working on her Ph.D.

"I consider myself extremely fortunate to be a student of Janine's," she says. "Her standards for herself in all aspects of academia are very high. These standards are effortlessly passed on to her students. Janine undoubtedly has had the greatest and most positive influence on my development as a scientist, and to no lesser extent as a person. Knowing Janine allowed me to discover and develop my love and appreciation for science and especially tapeworms - as if that isn't an accomplishment in itself."

Renu Aldrich