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Musings on Becoming a CRU Scientist by Wendy Turner

I’m part of the pandemic‐era cohort of new hires to the CRU program, having joined the USGS in July 2020. I came to the CRU program from academia, where I was an Assistant Professor in Biology at the University at Albany, State University of New York.

Pivoting a large undergraduate course from in‐person to online instruction as the country shutdown in spring 2020 was enough to dispel any doubts I might have had about giving up the tenure track, and I leapt at the opportunity to become a CRU scientist.

Despite entering my third year in the CRU program and having recently moved from Assistant Unit Leader to Unit Leader after Chris Ribic’s retirement this summer, I feel that I’m still finding my feet as a CRU scientist. I’m learning the lingo of 101 acronyms thrown around in casual conversation (just see how many I adeptly use in this paragraph!), though I’m still regularly introduced to new ones (e.g., ASAP).

I finally understand the difference between a Research Work Order (RWO) and a Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Units (CESU). I managed two DI‐1020 travel authorization forms. As this year without a hitch! I have a document I share with students and collaborators highlighting words and phrases used so commonly in academic writing to signal a sense of scientific urgency that are flagged in fundamental science practices (FSP) as inappropriate to our mission. I’ve learned the sincerity of ethics disclosure deadlines and the repercussions of thinking you can wait until the deadline to submit. I’ve internalized the importance of that comma placed between U.S. Geological Survey and the coop unit in my official address.

One mistaken assumption I had in taking this position was thinking I was bypassing the need to compile that tenure package—hoo boy was research grade evaluation (RGE) a wake‐up call!   I joined the CRU program for a variety of reasons, but one of the main reasons was a desire to study chronic wasting disease (CWD) in cervids. My previous research has been almost entirely international, studying wildlife disease ecology of herbivorous mammals in southern Africa. These projects covered gastrointestinal parasites, tuberculosis, ticks, but mostly, anthrax (in everything from artiodactyls to zebras), with newer work in New York on white‐nose syndrome in coastal populations of northern long‐eared bats.

White-tailed deer in snow with forest in background and dried grass in foreground.
A white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in a snowy field in front of forest in Wisconsin.

I joined the CRU program for a variety of reasons, but one of the main reasons was a desire to study CWD in cervids (hooved animals). My previous research has been almost entirely international, studying wildlife disease ecology of herbivorous mammals in southern Africa. These projects covered gastrointestinal parasites, tuberculosis, ticks, but mostly, anthrax (in everything from artiodactyls to zebras), with newer work in New York on white‐nose syndrome in coastal populations of northern long‐eared bats.

Developing research on CWD in white‐tailed deer has enriched my research program, bringing a desired contrast to our efforts at disentangling transmission dynamics for environmentally transmitted pathogens. We are now studying what I consider the “Big Three” wildlife pathogens that are highly persistent in the abiotic environment, those causing anthrax, white‐nose syndrome and CWD. These very different diseases are caused by a bacterium, a fungus, and a prion, respectively, yet share a common life history thread of surviving for years in the abiotic environment.

Northern long-eared bat with visible symptoms of WNS
Myotis septentrionalis, northern myotis (Vespertilionidae) with growth of Geomyces destructans clearly evident.

Diversifying my research portfolio has created synergy among students and scientists tackling similar questions using sometimes similar, sometimes very different approaches, in contrasting disease systems. I love how this position provides the connections, access, and resources to pull off such a big change in study systems with the enthusiastic support of partners at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the USGS and my host university, the University of Wisconsin ‐ Madison. I also love how being a CRU scientist allows me to meet the technical assistance needs of cooperators while focusing on what I find most rewarding about being a researcher: mentoring graduate students and postdocs. That all of this falls under the 3‐part mission of the CRU program is just icing on the cake.

I’ll wrap up this brief contribution by noting some unanticipated challenges and benefits I’ve encountered as a CRU scientist developing new research in a local system:

Unanticipated benefits:  

  • I can go from my coop office to the field, and back (!), in a single day. Data collection requires no intercontinental flights, no jetlag, no visas, no layers of permitting or days of travel.  
  • Long trips away from my elementary‐aged kids aren’t necessary.  

Unanticipated challenges:    

  • Long trips away from my elementary‐aged kids aren’t necessary. Let’s be serious, the lines are blurry on whether trips away for field research are work or a fun break from everyday life.  
  • I’m not sure how many years of working on white‐tailed deer it takes before I can encounter the word “does” in written text and read it as several female deer, not an auxiliary verb. 
Wendy Turner
Dr. Wendy Turner graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa and University of California, Berkeley. She was an National Science Foundation (NSF) International Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Oslo, Norway, and an Assistant Professor at the University of Albany, State University of New York before joining the Wisconsin Unit in 2020. Wendy specializes in wildlife disease ecology, currently studying disease transmission dynamics for chronic wasting disease in white-tailed deer in the Midwest, anthrax in mammalian herbivores in Namibia and South Africa, and white-nose syndrome in coastal Northern long-eared bats in the northeastern United States. Wendy's research fills critical gaps in our knowledge of disease transmission and variation in disease outbreaks over space and time. She investigates disease systems from the three sides of the “disease triangle” incorporating how variation in hosts, pathogens and the environment modulate host-pathogen contact, disease transmission, and ultimately disease outbreaks in host populations or communities. Wendy focuses on disease systems with environmental transmission, specifically pathogens that can survive for extensive periods in the off-host environment and teaches courses on ecology, the ecology and evolution of wildlife diseases, graduate research approaches.