Charles Criscione is from New Orleans where he graduated as valedictorian from Brother Martin High School and was a wrestling state champion. He got a B.S. in Zoology in 1995 from Louisiana State University where he was awarded the University Medal for highest graduating GPA. He went on to study parasitology at Southeastern Louisiana University where he got a M.S in Biology in 2000. He studied population genetics and got a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology at Oregon State University in 2005. From 2003-2005, he was an EPA STAR Graduate Fellow. He went on to do a postdoc at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio as a Cowles Postdoctoral Fellow. In 2006, the American Society of Parasitologists awarded him the Ashton Cuckler New Investigator Award. In 2008, he started as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology at Texas A&M University. He is a faculty member of the Genetics Graduate Program and Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. He was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure in 2014.
Tell us about your research interests, and how you see your research program developing over the next few years.
The main focus of the research in my lab is to understand how various ecological features of parasitic organisms (e.g., life cycle patterns, mating dynamics, transmission patterns, host use, etc.) influence the evolutionary mechanisms operating within parasite populations. We mainly work on helminth parasites (e.g., roundworms, flukes, tapeworms). Because parasites are small and are in cryptic places (i.e., inside their hosts), we often cannot directly observe their population dynamics. Fortunately, molecular population genetics theory and methods enable us to directly or indirectly infer their population ecology and evolution. Thus, we use parasite genotyping as a primary tool in the lab. You can think of it as “Parasite CSI” (though in reality, forensic genetic methods have their origins in evolutionary biology).
I foresee my research program continuing along the same lines in the near future as there remain many unanswered questions about the basic biology of parasites such as unknown biodiversity, unknown life cycles and so on. We have plenty to keep us busy in the years to come because parasites are very diverse in their natural histories. Eventually, we hope to get into more theory wherein we try to link classic models of parasite transmission to population genetics. The purpose is again related to the fact that direct observations on parasite population biology are difficult. Thus, the goal is to determine what population genetic statistics might best be suited to infer parasite ecology. We believe there are practical applications of such methods especially when it comes to studying the epidemiology of parasites of humans and epizoology of parasites of wildlife or domestic animals. In addition, new advances in next generation sequencing (NGS) are beginning to open the door to more population genomic studies. We are in the infancy of applying NGS to non-human parasites, but hopefully we will soon be able to address how ecological features of parasites influence their genome evolution.
Do you have any exciting news coming out of your lab recently?
Yes, we have had great news on 3 fronts (knock on wood :). First, my former graduate student and now Dr. Emily Kasl, was recently hired as a tenure-track Assistant Professor at the University of North Alabama. Second, my lab just had two papers accepted in Molecular Ecology (Part I and Part II). We believe these papers will be impactful as they present new methods that will enable others to study hermaphroditic parasite mating systems in nature. Moreover, these two studies also highlight how aspects of parasite transmission influence the parasite mating system. Hence, we have linked ecological aspects of a parasitic life style to inbreeding, which is a critical mechanism that can have important evolutionary consequences. Third, we were recently told that our proposal to NSF was going to be recommended for funding. In the proposed project, we will be using comparative population genetic studies to test the hypothesis that parasite mating systems impact the evolution of parasite complex life cycles.
When did you realize that you wanted a career in academia?
I guess I always had a natural affinity towards the basic natural history and diversity of organisms. I always enjoyed watching David Attenborough on various nature shows. When I started out as an undergrad, I actually was a pre-vet major. However, I soon realized I was more interested in animal ecology than animal medicine. I suppose the turning point was when I took a Herpetology (study of amphibians and reptiles) class from Dr. Douglas Rossman at LSU. It was a great class and it connected me to a grad student. I subsequently assisted this grad student in his field collections. From that point on, I knew I wanted to go to grad school. To make a long story short, I ended up at Southeastern LA Univ. to do my M.S. in parasitology with Dr. William Font. From there, I went on to study population genetics at Oregon St. Univ. with Dr. Michael Blouin. The rest is as they say…history.
Has your research taken you to any interesting places and enabled you to meet interesting people along the way?
Well a lot of our work requires us to sample various host organisms (e.g., geckos, catfishes, crayfish) in the field in order for us to collect the parasites. My students and I have driven almost two-thirds of the U.S. to do our sampling. We sample various water bodies such as creeks, bayous, swamps, ponds, and ditches. Imagine that as you are driving home one day, you see people in waders dipnetting along a roadside swamp. You might wonder “what are those people doing?” Well that is us and yes, we often get that question from the general public. When you start telling them about the parasites you research, they really get interested. They often share their own parasite stories or fishing stories. You also get to meet some really great locals. In fact, we have had locals catch fish for us. They are happy to do so because all we want are the guts. One funny story was during a collection trip in Tennessee. We came upon a creek named “Charles Creek”. Of course, we had to sample that creek given the name. Upon getting in the water, we noticed some graffiti under the bridge “Charles Creek Mafia”. We thought that was a fitting name for our field-crew.
Describe strategies that you use to create an inclusive research environment for your students.
To be honest, I am not sure I have any strategy. Every student is different and for me personally, I have found that “one size does not fit all”. My students have the freedom to pursue what they like and I welcome students from all walks of life. The only criterion is that they have a passion for the work they are doing. I suppose this would be true at any job and not just academia.
What graduate courses have you developed during your tenure at A&M?
I developed a graduate course in Population Genetics. Population Genetics is a fundamental course for all biologists as it provides the underlying theory to the evolutionary mechanisms (mutation, genetic drift, gene flow, non-random mating, and natural selection). I enjoy this class as the grad students keep me on my toes with regards to staying up to date on developments in the field. I teach the class at a very fundamental level, but the goal is to make sure the students have a sound foundation such that they have the resources to span off into other evolutionary topics (e.g., molecular evolution, genomics, etc.)
What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
I suppose for people who only know me as a professor, the one thing they may be surprised by is that I used to wrestle and currently volunteer as a coach at a youth club in town, Brazos Valley Wrestling Club. Similarly, I think the parents of some of our young wrestlers are often surprised to hear that I am a professor at A&M. I think all of this comes from the societal stereotypes of academics/professors and likewise for athletes. I try to teach my young wrestlers that you can be both an intellectual and an athlete. They go hand in hand. I myself was a valedictorian at my high school and a LA high school wrestling state champion. In general, the sport of wrestling is very much ingrained in me. It is a very intense (mental and physical) and personal (psychological) sport as it is just you and your opponent out there. No one but you takes the blame or credit for what happens on the mat. There is a famous quote by Dan Gable (one of the most accomplished wrestlers and coaches ever) “Once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life is easy”. I must say academia comes with its own unique stressors these days. So when confronted with a challenge (be it research related or otherwise), I just remind myself that I used to wrestle…so whatever is in front of me can only be easier :).