Research project at Penn State York involved lizards and parasites

September 05, 2012

Studying parasites is something that Anne M. Vardo-Zalik loves. Vardo-Zalik, an assistant professor of biology at Penn State York, spent the summer in California collecting samples relevant to the study of the western fence lizard and conducting research on how the malaria parasite impacts the species. She prefers to work with natural parasite-host systems and for the past 10 years has monitored the lizards and tried to determine how parasites and their hosts (the lizards) survive over time.

For a portion of the summer, Vardo-Zalik was assisted by Victoria Motz, a senior at Penn State York studying life science. Motz worked side-by-side with Vardo-Zalik.

“I really enjoyed being able to learn one-on-one from Dr. Vardo-Zalik,” said Motz. “I was able to learn how to collect my own samples and process them with hands-on experience. Hearing stories about field research and conducting my own research was a great experience. I absolutely think undergraduate research is beneficial.”

A typical day for the lizard-catching duo started around 8 a.m. with nooses in hand and then continued until midnight when they dropped off the sand flies that were caught in traps set earlier in the evening. Sand flies transmit the malaria parasite from lizard to lizard and are an important part of the study. Processing the lizards included everything from determining their sex and taking a blood sample to taking measurements to estimate their age. Blood smears were then scanned to check to see which lizards were infected with malaria and which were not. 

According to Vardo-Zalik, the lizards are very sneaky and oftentimes have the researchers running around trees for a long time to try and catch them.

A goal of the research is to learn how the transmission dynamics maintain the malaria parasite in this lizard population. This will give researchers a better understanding of how wildlife diseases are maintained in a natural setting.

Vardo-Zalik joined the Penn State faculty in 2010 and specializes in parasites, focusing on the ecology of the transmission biology of malaria parasites. She teaches courses in parasitology (the study of parasites), microbiology for science majors, population ecology courses, and a variety of others.   She earned an undergraduate degree in 2000 and a master’s degree in 2003 in marine biology from the University of Massachusetts – North Dartmouth, Mass., and a doctorate in biology in 2008 from the University of Vermont, Burlington, Vt.

Since her arrival on campus, Vardo-Zalik has provided research opportunities for undergraduate students. She believes these opportunities provide students with experience that will help them determine whether or not they are on the right career path and lets them put into action what they study in books.

“I like to bring students into the lab and tailor the project to fit their interest,” said Vardo-Zalik. “It gives them a chance to experience what it is really like to do research and they gain a sense of responsibility.  We work together and there is a mutual respect.”

Motz, 22, from New Cumberland, Pa., is set to graduate in May 2013 and plans to earn an Emergency Medical Technician certificate and then apply to medical school.  Motz is thankful for her undergraduate research experience through Penn State York. She learned a great deal from her work with Vardo-Zalik because her areas of interest are immunology and infectious diseases. She not only had the opportunity to work side-by-side with a faculty member but also traveled to California, a place she has always wanted to visit.

“I absolutely think undergraduate research is beneficial, said Motz. “It has been my favorite experience in college.”


  • Anne Vardo-Zalik, left, and Tori Motz, right, use fishing poles with a nylon noose tied to the end and then chase the lizards around to catch them. Double-teaming the lizard, one person on each side of the tree, usually made catching the lizards faster.

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated September 06, 2012