A passion for parasites

A shift in career focus leads to high honor for veterinary instructor

By Alexis Bajalia

Heather Walden was two electives short of obtaining her master’s degree in biology from Appalachian State University in 2004 when she decided to enroll in a parasitology course, and the rest is history.

While some might be disturbed by the thought of interacting with parasites, Walden said she found them to be beautiful.

“It was the details of the parasites and their life cycles and everything that goes into them thriving in this world,” she said. “It was absolutely amazing to me. The more I got into it, the more questions it opened up, and I liked that.”

That one parasitology course led Walden, who was planning to finish up her master’s degree and apply for veterinary school, to change her focus. Instead, she earned her doctorate in biomedical sciences with a specialization in parasitology from Auburn University. Walden, 40, now is an assistant professor of veterinary parasitology at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine. She came to UF in 2010.

“It never in a million years crossed my mind that I would become as interested in parasitology as I was,’’ she said. “And I didn’t think I would be getting a doctorate or teaching, either.’’

But Walden’s students say she’s right where she needs to be. In July, she received the college’s 2016 Zoetis Distinguished Veterinary Teacher Award, which is the school’s top honor for instructors. The award criteria include student and peer evaluations; the quality of teaching and the impact on student learning; and teaching-related research, service and publishing activities.

A shiny plaque now sits on a top shelf in Walden’s office, and she said she feels incredibly humbled and grateful.

“When I was told I was going to receive the award, I honestly couldn’t believe it. I think I actually started to cry,” she said. “I am so appreciative of everyone who nominated me and spoke for me. It’s something I was not expecting at all.”

Walden said it’s hard to hide her enthusiasm when she’s teaching a subject she enjoys.

“I think one of the comments I got on a student evaluation said, ‘She likes parasites way too much,’ and I decided to take that as a compliment,’’ she said.

But teaching is just part of her world. Walden is in charge of running a diagnostic lab at the veterinary college that receives samples from zoos, veterinarians in private practice, conservation centers and other veterinary schools across the country. After receiving the samples, the lab’s job is to identify the parasites that have infected the usually exotic animals of concern.
“It’s very rare that I get a cat or a dog. I consider those easy,” she said. “The samples tend to come from weirder animals, things I’ve never even seen or heard of before.”

In September, Walden received a call from a biologist in the Florida Keys who wanted her to identify a parasite that has been infecting an endangered Key deer that had deep, life-threatening wounds. After samples were sent to her lab, Walden identified the parasite as the New World screwworm — a startling finding since the screwworm was thought to have been eradicated in the United States in the 1960s.

“It’s something that’s always on the radar, but you never see it,” she said, noting that she double-checked her work after coming to the screwworm conclusion. “I think Americans tend to live in a bubble thinking these pathogenic parasites aren’t going to make their way here, but they do.”

When she isn’t working in her lab, Walden teaches students to work in the lab themselves through an individualized investigation course she runs during the summer. She also co-teaches a clinical rotation, gives guest lectures and conducts research.

With sticky notes plastered around her desk to help her stay on top of all of her tasks, the mom of two said her days are chaotic, but her students keep her motivated.

“Seeing their excitement and knowing that something I said actually stuck with them and made a difference in their practice or career is what brings me here every day,” she said.

To students who are struggling to find their niche, Walden advises them to keep an open mind when new opportunities arise.

“Try as many different avenues as you can,” she said, “And say ‘yes’ more than you say ‘no.’”

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