How WEC Works: Kim Ledger
Kim Ledger is a WEC PhD student in the Wisely and Sayler labs.
What is your research about?
I am studying the ecology of ticks and the diseases they vector. My research and fieldwork is in southern Africa, and I’m looking at how spatial variation in hosts and vegetation is driving patterns of tick occurrence in an area.
Also, a portion of my research uses molecular tools. For example, I will be analyzing the ticks I collect in the field to test for the hosts they feed on and the potential pathogens they are transmitting.
What countries are you working in?
My field work is in Swaziland, taking advantage of the collaborations our department has in that area, and also in South Africa.
How did you become interested in wildlife? Do you have an origin story?
I grew up in Montana, and I was lucky enough to have a family that loved the outdoors and spending time in the mountains and forests.
We’d go on hikes and camping trips on the weekends, and my school went on field trips to different nature preserves and national forests.
Being surrounded by such an interesting natural environment got me interested in the diversity of life we see around us and how our natural world works.
What’s one word that describes how you work?
Do you have a go-to tool?
Yes! For working with ticks, you cannot do fieldwork without a white flannel drag cloth. We use these 1 m^2 cloths to walk through vegetation and collect ticks.
Instead of just getting ticks all over you when you’re doing fieldwork, it’s a way to detect questing ticks.
What’s your favorite animal you’ve worked with?
Though I do find the ticks I‘m studying now absolutely fascinating, I’ll have to go with bats. Before starting graduate school I had the chance to use mistnets to survey bats in Trinidad.
I found it absolutely fascinating to see creatures up close that you normally only see flying through the sky at night. Maybe someday I can return to studying them!
How do you manage your time?
I think scheduling is key. When I’m working, I tend to focus really hard on what I’m doing, and then when it’s time to take a break I try to completely switch off and do other things. Work hard when it’s time to, then take time to relax outside of school.
What do you like about living in Gainesville?
I like that there are some many resources, and diversity of people and expertise all within the University. It is possible to find experts who are able to help students out in almost every discipline.
Also, earlier today I was reminded because I had just talked to my family in Montana, who are starting to see signs of snow, that I am thankful that you can bike all winter long and you don’t have to start your car ten minutes before leaving to get all the ice off of it. I love snow but it makes getting around town so much easier!
If you could call yourself back in undergrad, and give yourself advice, what would you say?
Follow your passions and your interests, and to go outside your comfort zone to make connections and find the kind of work and job opportunities you want to get!
Is there anyone else I should talk to?
I’d recommend Carrie De Jesus. She is my lab mate who also studies ticks, but her research is in Florida and focuses on ticks that feed on reptiles.
Is there anything else you want to talk about?
I guess I should advocate for ticks a little bit, since that’s what I’m studying!
I think most people, when they hear then word “ticks”, think of gross, blood-sucking invertebrates that are only around to transmit diseases back and forth, but they are much more interesting than that!
They have all these crazy adaptations for how they navigate and use their sensory organs to find hosts.
Ticks have specialized organs that they can use to sense motion or shadows. Often, to find a host, some ticks will “quest”, by climbing up to the tips of grass and waiting until they sense any movement from a potential host going by. Then, their senses trigger them to attach. Also, there are hundreds of species of ticks and they each have adapted to take advantage of hosts.
While parasites can be creepy, they’ve got just as much cool stuff going on for them as our typical charismatic animals.
This interview by Rhett Barker, and has been lightly edited for clarity by Claire Williams and Rhett Barker.
Thanks to Kim Ledger for speaking with us!