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“My Precious”

An Address to December Graduates 2013

Dr. Victor Townsend, Professor of Biology

By Dr. Victor Townsend, Professor of Biology

Good Afternoon. It is a pleasure and honor to have this opportunity to speak to you today

I am a biologist, I spend most of my time in Blocker Hall.

I believe that I am the first biologist to give this address in the past 15 years, and depending upon how I do I may be the last biologist for the next 15 years.

In preparing for today, I asked colleagues about the parameters for such an address. Generally, what should one hope to accomplish in this speech?

I was told (most importantly) to be brief and I promise that I will be so. I was urged to include material that would not be so easy to forget, I think I can do that as well.

It was strongly suggested to me to give a speech that only a biologist would dare to give and I was also told to say something that would reflect my personality and my approach to teaching and scholarship.

And so, today, I am going to tell you the story of “My Precious.” It’s a rather unusual story. It has both a tragic ending and a happy ending, depending upon one’s perspective.

I think it reflects the liberal arts traditions that are celebrated in the natural sciences here at VWC. It may also give you something to talk about later today or at your next dinner party

I met Precious in Belize in July 2012. You might say we were very close from the beginning and that are attachment only strengthened over the month that we spent together.

Precious and I could not be parted, so we returned to the USA together and spent 3 unforgettable weeks together. Everywhere I went, Precious went as well.

Even now, two years after our sudden parting, as I gaze at my right wrist, I can still image Precious being there. As our relationship progressed and intensified, I have to confess that Precious really grew under my skin.

Precious would often awaken me in the middle of the night, for no particular reason

Near the end of our relationship, I think it’s fair and accurate to say that Precious caused me real physical pain.

So, I had Precious killed. I still bear the scars of my relationship with Precious and I always will.

Now, before you grow to concerned about Precious, let me say that Precious was not a person, nor was Precious a dog or a cat or any other pet for that matter. In fact, I brought Precious with me today. Would you like to see Precious? [Holds up vial with specimen]

You see, Precious was a botfly larva, a parasitic maggot that lived under my skin for four weeks. So, you may or may not know what a botfly is, so let me put on my professor cap and give you a brief lecture on the unusual reproductive biology of the female botfly

Botflies are about twice the size of houseflies and they do not lay their eggs directly upon the host. Instead, female botflies grab female mosquitos and lay 1-2 eggs on the mosquito and then release them. The female mosquito feeds upon warm blooded vertebrates, such as humans.

Upon landing upon the host, the body heat of the person triggers the botfly egg to hatch and the microscopic larva crawls off the mosquito towards the wound created by the mosquito feeding. It takes 1-2 hours for the botfly to crawl into the wound, once there it begins to feed and grow, forming a sterile abscess under the skin.

To obtain oxygen, the botfly larva maintains a breathing hole through which it can stick a breathing tube out and also to excrete wastes. The botfly is armed with long spines to prevent the host from pulling the botfly larva out.

It takes 8-10 weeks for the botfly larva to finish this stage of its life cycle, when it is 1-2 inches long, it crawls out the breathing hole and like a butterfly or moth caterpillar it pupates and in 1-2 weeks a new adult botfly emerges and is ready to carry on the life cycle.

How does one know that one has a botfly? I often tell my students that after they come back from a trip that they should carefully monitor all bug bites; if one does not heal in one to two weeks or enlarges, they should seek out a physician because they may have a botfly or some other parasite.

For me, I knew that I had a botfly when I had a bite that did not heal, but enlarged; the weekend before I went to see the physician, I noticed the wound leaking fluid, I used a napkin to clean it up and that’s when I saw movement–I saw the breathing tube move and I knew that I had a botfly larva of my own.

That Monday, I went to Urgent Care and confirmed that I had a botfly; the doctor asked me how I was doing, he said most people would be creeped out by having a botfly; I told him that I thought it was really cool!

He scheduled a consult with a surgeon for that Thursday; so for the next three days I went around showing everyone my botfly. I called it “My Precious” after Gollum in the Lord of the Rings; Gollum referred to the great ring as his precious and would often stroke the ring. Well, I called my botfly “My Precious” and found myself often stroking the skin of my right wrist.

When I went to see the surgeon, I asked only two things: that precious be removed in one piece and that I wanted to keep precious to show my students in my classes. He said “no problem” and 15 minutes later, Precious and I were parted forever.

On the way out, I showed “My Precious” to the nurses, PAs, the receptionist, and other patients; no one had ever seen before and apparently this was the highlight of the day.

So, why did I tell you the story of Precious? You have to admit, it is not a story that just any professor would tell nor is it a story that one can easily forget–I never will.

I told you the story because I think it reflects my own story as a student and as a professor. Twenty years ago, I sat where you now sit; I had no idea that I would ever have a precious of my own.

When I was finishing my undergraduate studies, I knew I was headed to graduate school to study salamanders in the Mountains of Virginia and to lab based studies of behavior.

I had no idea that I would be studying spiders two years later or that I would be using a scanning electron microscope on a daily basis for my four years as a doctoral student. I began my career at VWC in 2000 and my first avenue of research was the anatomy of snake skin.

In 2003, I spent 7 weeks on the Caribbean island Trinidad hunting for snakes for my research; Now, I don’t know about your experiences with snakes, but generally I have found that when you are not looking for snakes they are everywhere and when you are looking for them actively, they are nowhere to be found.

I caught one snake during that trip. However, I did find may species of daddy longlegs and when I came back and did a literature review, I found that they were largely ignored–they do not transmit diseases and they are not poisonous.

That was the first of what has since been 13 trips to Tropical rainforest in the Caribbean and Central America. There is a saying amongst tropical biologist with respect to botflies: “The question is not if I will ever get a botfly, it is only a question of when I will get my first.”

I like to think that at field stations and at scientific conferences, Tropical Biologists from all over the world gather to share their botfly stories, just like I have shared my story of precious with you. Graduates, who knows when you will have a precious story of your own to share.

Some of you may never have one, some may only ever have one. Others will have many. In July 2012, I had one botfly larva on my right wrist. On the same trip, Dr. Maynard Schaus was infested with four botflies in his thighs.

Graduates, please send us cards, emails or drop by for a campus visit. Six months from now or 10 years, it does not matter, we always enjoy hearing from you.

We want to know about your successes, the challenges that you have faced (and hopefully overcome) and at least for me, I’d love to hear more about your own parasite stories.

Congratulations!

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