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NSF-funded training program keeps field of taxonomy alive

Expertise in describing and identifying species is fading away, but the University is helping revive it with experts from around the world and a National Science Foundation grant.

Partnerships for Enhancing Expertise in Taxonomy, a national NSF program started two years ago, funds training and research in fields of taxonomy that are in danger of losing experts. A research and training program in parasitology headed by ecology and evolutionary biology professors Janine Caira and Charles Henry was among 21 projects in the United States to win one of the first $750,000 PEET grants in 1995.

Caira says the PEET program, a five-year training and research program, "makes the case that the field of taxonomy is worthy of investment.

"It provides students with a full education and training in a discipline that is in danger of fading away," she says. "There is a gap in the knowledge, in a field where there are few or no experts left. This program will help bridge that gap."

The UConn program includes bringing in experts in tapeworm identification to pass on their knowledge to students through a series of workshops.

To date, the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology has hosted four one-week, thirty-hour workshops, conducted by renowned experts in the field of parasitology. Workshops this fall have included: Dr. Robert Rausch, a retired professor from the department of comparative medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle; and Louis Euzet, a retired professor from the Université Montpelier II in Sète, France, specializing in the tapeworms of mammals and sharks respectively. Last April, Franco Bona, a retired professor who researches tapeworms in birds and mammals at Universite de Torino, Italy, conducted a workshop at UConn.

Bona, now back in Connecticut to conduct research, says the experience was beneficial not just to the students but to the field of taxonomy.

"It was not only a lesson for the students but a discussion with them," Bona says. "Their questions were precise and meaningful, which shows they will be well prepared in the field."

Many of the students involved are graduate students specializing in tapeworm research, but the series is also open to undergraduates with an interest in the field. The students were glad to take advantage of the expertise.

"I never thought I'd be meeting icons of the subject and learning from them," says Sohini Ghoshroy, a master's degree student in ecology and evolutionary biology.

Gaines Tyler, a second year Ph.D. student, agrees. "Getting a combined 50 years of experience is great. What we are learning can't be found in any textbook," Tyler says.

In addition to the intensive workshops over the five-year period, the NSF also funds student research. The students take part in laboratory and field research that helps them learn to identify different types of tapeworms in sharks and rays. Last summer, Caira and her students went to Australia. This summer they plan to go to Japan to research the three types of tapeworms that affect these animals.

The research conducted and the workshops will be put on the Web, Caira says. The site, when completed, will describe all the research the students conducted, along with information and knowledge from the experts that took part in the workshops.

Eileen Labenski