A corner back room on the fifth floor of Nebraska Hall is home to hundreds of thousands of parasite specimens. The collection – part of the Harold W. Manter Laboratory of Parasitology – is the second largest in the Western Hemisphere, department officials say.
The dark wood cabinet drawers pull out to reveal boxes and boxes of glass slides, most with tiny dots barely visible without magnification. Each slide is carefully numbered and cataloged in an online database.
Enter into the adjacent laboratory and the same sense of organization isn’t as strong. Only a few small islands of empty counter space are visible amid bottles of specimens, slides and bags of organic material set aside to be examined under the microscope.
Scott Gardner, the collection curator and a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor in the School of Biological Sciences, surveys the projects. As he walks by a student looking through a microscope in the corner of the room, he asks, “Find anything?” He takes off his large, cable-bar glasses and looks into the microscope. “Ah, that’s a pretty weird-looking guy,” he said.
Gardner’s passion began in childhood. He reaches up to a high shelf above the lab samples and shuffles through some books and papers, pulling out a small notepad: his first field notes.
The young Gardner would find dead animals – field mice, voles, sparrows and pheasants – on his family’s Oregon farm, try to identify parasites in the specimens and take notes on his findings. Each page in the notepad is a different entry. Most entries are dated 1968. Gardner was 12. The notes list the animal’s common name, sex and the location he found them (on some pages Gardner just wrote “Here”) and a small yes-or-no checkbox to indicate if it had worms.
The inspiration for the unique fascination came from Gardner’s uncle, a well-known parasitologist who did research in Alaska. He remembers sending parasite samples to Fairbanks for his uncle to look at.
Since then, Gardner’s research methods have become much more advanced and his specimens now come from more exotic places, including Bolivia and Mongolia. He received his Ph.D. in biology in 1988 from the University of New Mexico and has contributed to 51 research papers and articles and received hundreds of thousands in grant funding, according to the laboratory’s website.
While conducting research in Mongolia, Gardner and a field team found a parasite that had never before been recorded in the hosts they collected. Now, the Manter lab is looking to identify the distribution of the same parasite in Nebraska.
One member of that team was Altangerel “Auggie” Tsogtsaikhan. After studying parasitology at the National University of Mongolia, he was inspired by Gardner to come to UNL this past fall to continue researching the Mongolian specimen and pursue his masters degree in biological sciences. He says he loves the Manter lab for all of its equipment.
“You can do all these things right in this spot,” Tsogtsaikhan said. “The facility is really important. It’s perfect.”
Tsogtsaikhan realizes the opportunities he has here are especially important. He was in the first grade during the 1990 Democratic Revolution in Mongolia, but believes the following instability left gaps in specialized science education.
“For me, I have a responsibility in that parasitologists are missing in several generations because of political changes in our country,” he said.
He plans on returning to Mongolia to teach parasitology. “I will be filling out some of that gap and help build up that field more,” he said.
Tsogtsaikhan says he hopes to be like Gardner when he goes into teaching. “I want to work hard and become like him,” he said pointing to Gardner’s office. “He’s the great model.”
Cody McGregor, a sophomore fisheries and wildlife major, also says Gardner is part of the reason he works in the lab four to six hours a week. McGregor took Gardner’s zoology class and wanted to continue working with the professor for his personality as well as his professional connections.
“Scott is an extremely interesting guy, and his class was really fun because of his ridiculous, crazy stories,” McGregor said. “He’s a character.”
McGregor’s lab duties include dissecting mice to look for cysts on the liver, indicating a type of ectoparasite the lab is working to track. He also has to provide the mice himself. The three samples he is currently working on were caught in live traps he set up at his farm in Gibbon, Neb., during winter break. Once he caught them, he had to freeze them.
“I called my mom, and I’m like, ‘How do you feel about having dead rodents in our deep-freeze over winter break?” said McGregor, laughing.
McGregor hopes that lab experience and the opportunity to work alongside a passionate mentor such as Gardner will help him achieve his goals of working as a conservationist for national parks.
“Dr. Gardner is very passionate,” McGregor said. “That’s a great trait to have if you are going to be a parasitologist. You have to be passionate.”