No fluke…UND parasite pro named tops in field

Stephen Greiman earns biology Ph.D. in 2015, wins prestigious ‘New Investigator’ award in 2016 — in presence of Nobel Prize winner

Stephen Greiman

UND Ph.D. alumnus Stephen Greiman doing field work in the Yukon, Canada in 2014. The work was part of a study of small mammals and their parasites in the Arctic. Photo courtesy of Stephen Greiman.

Even before Stephen Greiman’s first fall semester at the University of North Dakota, his career trajectory already was skyward.

The Barrington, Ill., native spent the preceding summer attaining his private pilot’s license to jump start his degree in aviation — but that life plan just wasn’t getting much lift.

“I like flying, it was fun, but I didn’t really see it as my passion,” Greiman said. “As a high school student, I really enjoyed biology and the life sciences. So I decided to transition into that and try to feel around what really fit me well and what my passion was.”

Greiman has now followed that passion to the top of his new field. The 2015 UND Ph.D. graduate received the American Society of Parasitologists’ (ASP) 2016 Ashton Cuckler New Investigator Award, given to the most outstanding North American early career parasitologist of the year. The honor is competitive, and is based on the recipient’s research over the course of graduate studies.

The award was established by 2015 Nobel Prize winner William Campbell, a longtime member of the American Society of Parasitologists. Campbell was present when Greiman received his prestigious award.

This was just one in a string of accolades for the young parasite researcher, including multiple “Most Outstanding Graduate Student” nods from UND’s Biology Department and a prestigious postdoctoral research fellowship from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“It’s really exciting and not something that I expected, going into the work I’m doing. I just really enjoy the work,” Greiman said. “A lot of why I’ve gotten this far is because of the people I’ve worked with and the collaborators I have. (UND Professor of Biology) Vasyl Tkach, as my Ph.D. adviser, really provided the opportunities for me to succeed.”

Stephen Geiman

Greiman poses for a photo during a research visit to Alaska. Photo courtesy of Stephen Greiman.

Feeding on knowledge

Greiman’s interest in parasites, such as tapeworms and flukes, started to bloom when he began working closely with Tkach.

“Vasyl did a very wide range of research projects, so I got a lot of hands-on work doing molecular and classical taxonomy work, as well as going out in the field and collecting samples and bringing them back to the lab,” Greiman said. “It showed the broad range of possibilities of doing scientific research in academia.”

“Parasitology is an extremely integrative field of science,” Tkach said. “To be a good parasitologist, you need to know the parasite itself, but also its hosts and the environment they live in. I think this complexity and diversity of things to do is very attractive for a researcher and was a large part of Stephen’s choice.”

Greiman bypassed a master’s degree and applied directly to the UND biology Ph.D. program. Faculty chose him as the top candidate, and he started the day after crossing the stage to receive his undergraduate diploma.

Vasyl Tkach

UND Professor of Biology Vasyl Tkach served as Greiman’s Ph.D. advisor at UND, and is credited by Greiman for providing “the opportunities for me to succeed.”

He chose to focus his dissertation work on Neorickettsia, a symbiotic bacteria in parasitic flukes that can cause Potomac horse fever and the rare Sennetsu fever in humans. Greiman developed the first lab model of Neorickettsia circulation through the fluke life cycle, allowing scientists to study the bacteria in a way that hadn’t been possible before.

“The Neorickettsia work combined a lot of techniques you could be doing, and really broadened the type of education I would receive,” Greiman said. “I got to work with parasites and these bacteria that are inside the parasite, using molecular techniques like DNA sequencing and microscopy with fluorescent images.”

Greiman’s Neorickettsia research took him across the globe, including multiple trips to southeast Asia for field work, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and the Philippines.

“If I was told going into my Ph.D., or even as an undergraduate that I would have the opportunity to travel to so many different places, I probably wouldn’t have believed it,” Greiman said. “Doing scientific research — especially in this field — really gives you the opportunity to work with people all over the world, to see places that many people don’t get to see. It’s really been one of the better parts of getting my Ph.D. at UND.”

New opportunities

Greiman is now starting his second year of a two-year NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, one of the most competitive in the country.

The fellowship brought him to the University of New Mexico to work alongside renowned mammologist Joseph Cook, utilizing the Museum of Southwestern Biology’s large mammal and parasite collections. Greiman’s emphasis is using next-generation technology to understand different species of shrews and the bacteria and parasites inside of them.

“We’re really utilizing a resource — these museum collections — that didn’t get used as much for DNA sequencing or for much besides just saying, ‘Oh, this animal was present in this spot.’ We can now use new technologies to make these museum samples more relevant.”

In January, Greiman will begin a new adventure: teaching courses in parasitology and general biology as a tenure-track faculty member at Georgia Southern University. But his research will continue, as will his reputation as one of the best in his trade.

“It makes me extremely proud of him,” Tkach said. “The ASP award is very well deserved, as I saw how much hard work, creativity and innovation he put in his research.”

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