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Team Cary: Dr. Ilya Fischhoff

Postdoctoral researcher Ilya Fischhoff discusses his path in science, advice to younger scientists, and where to find the best sourdough in Dutchess County, NY.

Cary Institute is a mosaic of personalities and backgrounds. Every day, our team of scientists, postdocs, volunteers, interns, and support staff helps further Cary’s mission to do great science.

Ilya Fischhoff is a postdoctoral researcher working with Cary scientist Barbara Han. Prior to joining Han’s lab, Fischhoff started at Cary working on The Tick Project, a five-year study testing ways to reduce tick numbers and tick-borne illness at the neighborhood scale. The Tick Project is co-led by Cary’s Rick Ostfeld and Felicia Keesing of Bard College.

In 2009, Fischhoff undertook a one-year Science and Technology Policy Fellowship with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington DC. Fischhoff’s work in DC ranged from helping Senator (then Congressman) Edward Markey, whose office he worked in as a AAAS Fellow, develop nuclear policy after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, to helping produce the National Climate Assessment, a key document underpinning US policy on climate change.

In 2016, Fischhoff moved to the Northeast and saw an opportunity to return to ecological fieldwork, his pre-DC profession, joining The Tick Project. With nearly four years at Cary under his belt, Fischhoff discusses his path in science, advice to younger scientists, and where to find the best sourdough in Dutchess County, NY.

Q&A with llya Fischhoff

When did you realize you wanted to do science?

By the time I was ready for grad school, I felt strongly that I wanted to pursue science and applied for a program in ecology. It wasn’t until I actually started grad school that I thought, “Yes, science is definitely what I want to do.”

Putting a radio collar on a Grevy's zebra during a field course in Kenya. Credit: Heather Larkin.

In my first year of grad school, I went on a field course to Kenya. It was mind-blowing to see so much wildlife. That got me hooked. Later that year, there came an opportunity to study how zebras make decisions about where to go in the landscape, working with Dan Rubenstein. I jumped at it.

Did you have a science hero?

My father is definitely a hero for me. He’s a scientist too, a cognitive psychologist. He spends his time helping people and helping the environment. I also admire the advisors and mentors I’ve had throughout college, graduate school, and as a postdoc. Tim Flannery stands out as an early hero because I had an independent study with him. He’s a real adventurer and climate change leader. Meeting him and hearing his stories made me realize, “Wow, I can have adventures doing this.”

What came after graduate school?

Initially, I undertook a postdoctoral position – a collaboration between biologists and computer scientists (Tanya Berger-Wolf and her students) – to understand how animal social networks change over time. Then I took an unusual path and worked in science policy for six years. I was interested in policy and had done a lot of campus sustainability work in college. That led me to apply for the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship. I ended up working in Congress, in the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and for the National Climate Assessment. That work was meaningful, but I missed doing science myself. I began looking for postdoc positions where I could learn new things. I applied for a position with The Tick Project at Cary Institute. It was exciting because it is a large-scale project in ecology, working on a problem that could help a lot of people.

Working with Congressman Ed Markey during a Congressional Science Fellowship in Washington, DC. Credit: Eliza Dewey.

How does science surprise you?

Surprises are what I love about science. For example, one study I did as a part of The Tick Project asked – are wolf spiders and the biopesticide used against ticks in The Tick Project compatible? Do both methods, together, control ticks, or do they conflict?

This project involved placing wolf spiders and ticks in small outdoor enclosures, called microcosms, which kept the ticks and spiders together in their natural habitat so we could study them. It was surprising to find that when the spiders were active, the ticks were less active. And when I put my face near the enclosures, fewer ticks tried to get at me when spiders were present. The spiders were scaring the ticks!

When I studied zebras, I observed how they changed their behavior in response to lions. It was surprising to discover that ticks change their behavior in response to wolf spiders. Most ticks (including blacklegged ticks), don’t have eyes, so we don’t know how exactly they’re responding. We know ticks respond to chemical cues, so we think this might be what’s happening.

What are some of your favorite memories from The Tick Project?

My favorite Tick Project memory is when we did an experiment to figure out whether a fungal spray used against ticks was safe for ‘non-target invertebrates’ – everything besides ticks. Working with the project assistants was my favorite part. They were an awesome crew to learn from.

Preparing to spray Met52 for an experimental study on its effects on non-target invertebrates. Credit: Sophia Raithel.

I also liked learning about new invertebrates. I had thousands of invertebrates to sort, many of which I had never heard of. They are fantastic creatures. Many are too small to see without a microscope. Up close, many are bizarre looking.

Given unlimited funding, what is a research question you would want to explore?

I’m interested in making opportunities for communities to come together to learn about nature and wildlife where they live, and enabling community members to use that information to help manage wildlife in the place they call home.

What are you working on now?

My current research, working with Barbara Han, is making predictions about diseases that move from wildlife to people and livestock. We’re studying questions like: Where are pigs at risk from African swine fever? How does the behavior of fruit bats eating date palm sap influence the threat of Nipah virus for people in Bangladesh? Where are people in danger from rodent-borne diseases in the coming season? Which traits of bacteria make them likely to be harmful to people?

To answer these questions, we’re making sense of complex data using machine learning and artificial intelligence. I’m excited for the opportunity to learn while building on my experiences with animal behavior and disease ecology. I’m grateful to be doing research that can help people make decisions for health and conservation.

Do you have any advice for young scientists?

It’s important to notice what in science gets you most engaged and energized. Try to get experience working in different areas of science to explore options and figure out what feels right. It’s also helpful to talk to people. Reach out to scientists whose work you’re interested in and ask them if they would talk with you about what they do and their path in science.

What are you doing when you’re not in the lab?

I like hiking and watching the animals in nature. My wife, Heather Larkin, is a storyboard artist, and I enjoy helping her come up with story ideas.

What about your favorite local restaurant?

Pawling Bread Co! They have really good sourdough and the owners are super nice.