About Meghan Duffy

I am an ecologist at the University of Michigan. My research focuses on the ecology and evolution of infectious diseases, particularly in lake Daphnia populations.

A remembrance of my dad, the best field assistant anyone could hope for

My dad died this past weekend, of what was surely covid (though, since he wasn’t tested, he isn’t in the official statistics). Not surprisingly, this has me reflecting on a lot of things, including the time we spent together at Kellogg Biological Station (KBS), when I was in grad school and he was my field assistant. My father was about as non-academic as they come, but he was so supportive of my academic pursuits. That time we got to spend together was a gift.

scanned black and white photo of a boy with his head tilted, smiling at the camera

My father’s childhood was not easy — his mother died when he was 6, his father died shortly before he finished high school, and money was always very tight — but he still always approached life with a “glass half full” attitude. 

After he finished high school, he was drafted into the Army. He wasn’t particularly excited about having been drafted, but the alternative was to go to college, so he went into the Army. He was lucky to be stationed in Germany, rather than Vietnam. (This led me to be very confused when I was younger. I knew he’d been in the Army and that he’d been in Germany during a war, so I was sure he’d been in WW2, despite my teacher’s insistence that he was not old enough for that to have been possible.)

After the Army, my father enrolled in college on the GI Bill. This, too, was a source of confusion for me, since it also seemed clear that he had no interest in college and he never mentioned anything about courses. I finally asked him about this a few years ago: it turns out he enrolled for one semester, but never actually attended any classes. School was never his thing. 

Instead, he ended up becoming a NYC firefighter, spending over 30 years with FDNY. For the last part of his career, he drove the engine officially, was the Engine Company Chauffeur. I’ve always been proud of him being a firefighter, and that he drove the engine made me extra proud. (I mean, driving the engine is super cool, right?) It also led to a running joke that “side view mirrors don’t count”. I doubt he actually took out that many mirrors in his years I think he was very good at his job. But his point was, if he had to squeeze the rig through a tight spot and a car’s side view mirror was the only thing keeping him from getting through that spot and to the fire, that mirror was expendable. There’s a lesson in there about having one’s priorities straight.

* * * 

My dad was always incredibly supportive. He wasn’t someone who really pushed education my drive to do well in school and go to college definitely came from my mother, who had not been allowed to go to college when she graduated high school. (She later went to college after having three kids and while working two jobs.) At first, his support took relatively unremarkable forms, such as shuttling me and my stuff back and forth to Ithaca. (He would always stand with his hands on his hips while surveying the amount of stuff I wanted to bring and the amount of space in the back of the car; he always declared it was never all going to fit, then somehow got it all in.)

When I got a job working as a technician in Antarctica between college & grad school, it was his turn to think my job was cool. He drove around with me as I bought some supplies lots of film, a ton of fruit leathers, a good pair of sunglasses. He proudly announced to everyone in every store that we were buying them because I was going to Antarctica. He was the proudest papa there could be.

But the most notable and most memorable support of me, my education, and my career came when I was in grad school. He loved visiting me at KBS and, at some point (I can’t remember how or when), we hatched the idea that he should be my field assistant. So, he came for the summer and part of the fall, two years in a row. We’d go out sampling in the morning (or, sometimes, late at night if I was studying diel vertical migration or early in the morning if I needed to collect fish), then he’d help out a bit in the lab, then he’d go home and I’d stay in the lab counting samples. He was legendary at KBS, where everyone called him Fireman Bob. Not everyone could always understand him he had a strong Brooklyn accent and tended to mumble — but everyone loved him.

As readers who’ve done field work will know, there is a special bond that comes from being in the field with someone else. We spent so much time together in the truck and the boat, having time to talk about all sorts of things. I remember a story about him being in a burning building during the 1970s oil crisis and opening a door to find a closet stocked full of homemade containers of gasoline. We also didn’t talk about some things. Most notably, we never discussed evolution. My father didn’t accept evolution, yet was selflessly and happily helping me with evolutionary studies. We never discussed that inconsistency — we all have our own inconsistencies, and it wasn’t worth the strife discussing it would cause.

It was so fun to share this other world I’d moved into with him. Academia is definitely not part of my family’s story, and ecology isn’t either. I remember very clearly the first time he was doing a temperature profile on a lake, starting at the surface and lowering the probe meter by meter. When he hit the thermocline (the layer where the water temperature drops very quickly), he was shocked at how much the temperature was changing and kept saying “Whoa, it’s really dropping!”, thinking something was wrong with the probe. I will never have such a careful field assistant sometimes I would think it seemed like he was towing kind of fast, but then I’d time it and he was always spot on at 1 meter/second. He definitely took pride in a job well done.

In the end, I came out of those two years with lots of data, yes, but also with so much more. That time took what was already a strong bond and made it unbreakable. And it took something I already knew — that he supported me 100% — and took that to another level, too. It also provided perspective — getting up early to collect data on fish predation felt hard, but then my dad would be like, “You’re getting paid for this?!?!” If you want perspective on how hard your field season is, you should do it with someone who ran into burning buildings for a living.

* * * 

If we were in normal times, I would have flown to NY at the end of last week. But we’re not in normal times, and I’m stuck in Michigan. So, I took to looking through pictures, from when I was little, but also from our time together at KBS. I found this one, and texted it to my mom, asking her to share it with my dad:

Man smiling at the camera, holding a fish on a line

By then, my dad was starting to get confused — the virus was just too much for his body to handle. But as soon as he saw it, he said “That’s grandpa!” I had forgotten, but he, even in his confusion, remembered the name we used for any of the larger bluegill that we caught. (I did remember that he’d been upset that the fish had spun for the photo, making it look smaller!)

Memories are interesting, including what we remember and what we forget. I may have forgotten our Grandpa joke, but I know that I will always remember that time we had together. Clearly he did, too. It was such a gift. 

I miss you, dad. Rest in peace. 

A young woman and an older man standing next to a truck in rain gear, each holding an oar

Guest post: Suggestions from a Wellness Counselor on Coronavirus and Managing Mental Health

Kate Hagadone is the Wellness Counselor at Michigan Medical School’s Office of Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies (OGPS). She sent the information in this post to an OGPS listserv at the end of last week. I thought the information would be of interest to lots more folks, so, with her permission, am reproducing her email here:

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Guest post: Personal journeys towards developing quantitative skills

This post is by Isla Myers-Smith and Gergana Daskalova, from the University of Edinburgh

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Gaining quantitative skills takes you on a journey. When we start, many of us feel like we are behind and can never catch up. Those who feel too overwhelmed may never start the journey at all. And if we want to enhance diversity within the field of quantitative ecology, we need to overcome the fear factor in quantitative training. Reflections on our own quantitative journeys highlight that the major roadblock is taking that first step to bridge the quantitative skills gap. In the following blog post, we tell two interwoven stories of personal journeys towards developing quantitative skills to highlight how things can be different for the next generations of ecologists.

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Some Advice for PhD Students and Their Mentors in the Time of Coronavirus

This blog post started as an email conversation between Dana Turjeman and Meghan Duffy. Dana turned her initial outline into a twitter thread (starting here). We decided it would be fun (and hopefully helpful!) to turn this into a blog post that expands on these ideas. So, here are the perspectives of a PhD student and a faculty member who are trying to figure out how to maintain mental health and also hopefully some productivity, but that definitely comes second to physical & mental health while social distancing.

First, this assumes that you are not going about your normal routine, but, rather, trying to stay home as much as possible. This is strongly encouraged! If you aren’t sure of why, please read this.

Here’s our advice:

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Still time to apply! Two postdoc positions available in the Duffy Lab at Michigan! (UPDATE: There are also technician & lab manager positions!)

Meghan is still searching for two postdocs to work on host-parasite (or, more broadly, host-symbiont) interactions, using the Daphnia-parasite system! These positions are funded by a newly announced Investigator grant from the Moore Foundation, which will support high risk, high reward work on symbiosis in aquatic systems for the next 5 years.

UPDATE: I’m also looking for a technician and a lab manager. More info on those positions is available on the UM job site:

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Recording lectures is good for students, good for instructors, and good for public health

I’ve been thinking of writing a post about my experiences with recording lectures in Intro Bio for a while, and, with coronavirus spreading, now seems like a good time to finally write it up. Overall, I think there have been a lot of different benefits — well beyond what I initially anticipated. And, at a time when we really don’t want sick students showing up in lecture halls, there’s a strong public health argument for recording lectures and setting up class structures so that sick students aren’t penalized for staying home.

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Productivity, planning, and self-care: work-life balance requires planning ahead

As I’ve done work related to Michigan’s Grad Student Mental Health task force, and done my own “regular” work this semester, I’ve realized that discussions related to self-care and work/life balance often focus on things like making sure you get enough sleep or leaving time to go for a run or do yoga or things like that, but they leave out something important: if you want to do all those things (and I think they’re extremely important) and still submit manuscripts and proposals with deadlines, get feedback to lab folks in a timely manner, etc., you need to plan ahead. 

I’d been thinking about this for a while, but then had a really great conversation with a colleague about this that led to me coming up with this framework:

Top axis is "work-life balance/self care", right axis is "Plan ahead?" and left axis is "highly deadline motivated"

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Two postdoc positions on host-symbiont interactions available in Meghan Duffy’s lab at Michigan!

Two postdoctoral positions focusing on host-symbiont interactions in lake zooplankton are available in Meghan Duffy‘s lab at the University of Michigan. The successful candidates for these positions will be expected to carry out independent research relating to Daphnia-symbiont interactions in inland lakes. The overall project involves characterizing the diversity of symbionts associated with Daphnia (especially microsporidian symbionts), understanding interactions between symbionts that infect the same host, and uncovering the food web-level consequences of parasite outbreaks in inland lakes.

While there is some flexibility in exactly what each position will entail, two major themes are likely:

  • Theme 1, led by one postdoc: Molecular analysis & characterization of the diversity of microsporidia and other symbionts infecting Daphnia, as well as attempts to culture those symbionts in vivo and in vitro.
  • Theme 2, led by a second postdoc: Studies of the ecological dynamics of Daphnia­-symbiont interactions, including analysis of impacts of symbionts on food web processes.

The work will also likely involve studies aimed at uncovering mechanisms underlying shifts between parasitism, commensalism, and mutualism.

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Graduate student mental health at Michigan: some key factors & potential things to address

As I’ve written about before, I am chairing a task force for Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School that is focused on graduate student mental health. We started our work last summer, and have spent the past several months especially focused on identifying needs. This was done by evaluating what others have found; in one-on-one conversations with graduate students, mentors, and mental health professionals; and by hosting a couple of town halls. This post summarizes the major themes that emerged out of these conversations.

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When writing a grant proposal, do you first think of the topic? The experiments? The preliminary data? Something else?

Recently, a friend who was working on a grant proposal asked if I have the specific experiments in mind first and then come up with the framing from there, or if I have the big picture framing in mind and develop the specific experiments from there. I was a little stumped at first, then realized that was because I don’t really use either of those approaches. Instead, my initial motivation is usually preliminary data that I’m excited about and where it’s clear more work needs to be done to figure out what is really going on.

Here’s an example: As a graduate student, I carried out a study on a population where I tracked a parasite outbreak and host population dynamics and, at the same time, assayed the susceptibility of the population to that parasite at three time points. The results of the susceptibility assays were not at all what I expected at the start of the experiment:

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