Katie O'Dwyer

I finished my PhD in 2015 and am now a post-doctoral researcher at Ryerson University

Tell us about yourself

I grew up on the west coast of Ireland and this has left me with a great interest in nature. Currently I live in Toronto where I am doing research at Ryerson University to find out how stress affects animals abilities to defend against parasite infections. When I'm not working I like to go for a walk in nature, play boardgames, read or go to the cinema.

What is your research about?

I study the parasites that are found in wild animals and how these parasites affect the behavior and biology of their animal hosts. In more detail I am interested in finding out how stressful situations impact on an animal's ability to defend itself against infection by parasites.

What have you enjoyed the most about your research?

I'm always amazed when I analyse my data and find out how parasites influence their hosts!

I get to travel: In the last few years I lived and worked in New Zealand, I went to Australia to present my work at a conference and visit other labs, and I visited Europe on a big research trip. While in Europe I got to work in Ireland, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic.

What have you found most challenging about your research?

One of the biggest challenges for me is the careful detail that is required in setting up an experiment. This is important so that no outside factors, such as temperature, affect the results and sometimes achieving the ideal set up can be quite a challenge. Once this is done and the results are analysed all the hard work pays off.

How has your research experience influenced your career path?

My current research gives me the opportunity to pursue a wide variety of careers. This is especially good for me as I am not sure what exactly I want to do in the future. Perhaps I will continue working at a University or perhaps I will move into working in an industrial lab, for instance a lab where samples from sick pets or farm animals get analysed.

How has your research impacted the world?

The work I do is needed in order to understand how wild animals cope with environmental change. This is especially important right now as environments change very rapidly. My work on tadpoles and stress will provide important information about a group which are highly threatened with frog populations declining around the world. Through this work we hope to find better ways of managing these populations so that they can survive well into the future.

What do you predict will be the next big breakthrough in your field of research?

Research around stress and parasites requires a lot more work in order to answer the many remaining questions. For instance are parasites really stressful? What happens our immune systems if we have no parasites? Can parasites be used safely to treat some illnesses? We have discovered a lot but still have a lot more we would like to find out.

What motivates you to do research?

I grew up near the sea and was always interested in nature, especially marine life. I really liked biology in school and studied zoology at University. After University I worked in an aquarium for two years and it was there that I realised I wanted to do research. When we had ill fish I was always very curious about what was wrong with them and wanted to diagnose their health problem.

Tell us about your 'Eureka' moment

During my final year project at University I became fascinated with how microscopic parasites could have complicated life cycles, involving up to four hosts. As I went on to graduate school in New Zealand I got to discover eight different parasites and to describe some of the stages in their complicated life cycles. It felt great to provide this information for others to read during their studies just as I had read earlier in my own studies. Getting to study the effects these parasites have on their host was an added bonus and led me to what I do now.

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