Meet Carl Stenoien, insect ecologist and decathlete!
Hi, I'm Carl Stenoien!
What kind of work do you do?
I study butterflies and the things that eat them in the University of Minnesota Monarch Lab. Specifically, I study parasitoid wasps, which are a type of lethal parasite. Parasitoid wasps are extremely diverse. In fact, there are way more species of parasitoid wasps than all of the mammals, fishes, birds, reptiles, and amphibians combined! Most people have never heard of them, but they are everywhere and have important roles in regulating ecosystems.
Parasitoid wasps don’t sting people and most are very tiny. They lay their eggs into other insects, and those offspring consume the host from the inside. If you want to learn more about them, you could watch this webinar. I am interested in the evolution of these parasitoids, especially figuring out why they attack certain hosts, but not others.
As a graduate student, I spend my time working on lots of different things. Mostly, I design and conduct experiments in the lab and outside, analyze data and write scientific papers at my computer, and teach college biology classes.
How did you become interested in biology, and what did you study?
As a kid, one of my favorite breakfast activities was reading the nutrition facts labels on cereal boxes, milk cartons, or whatever else was on the table. I was always interested in human biology, especially the biology of athletes (things like exercise, nutrition, and sleep), and when I went to college, I planned to become a sports medicine doctor. However, during my first college biology class, I realized that many other organisms have even more interesting behaviors, physiology, and evolutionary history than humans! At that point, I changed my focus from sports medicine to ecology and evolutionary biology.
During the summer between my junior and senior year of college, I was lucky enough to travel to Blandy Experimental Farm in Virginia and participate in a research program for undergraduates. I decided to study the ecology of amphibian diseases and insect predators in freshwater ecosystems. I had a blast tromping through marshes and wetlands, and scooping up hundreds of interesting organisms with every swipe of the net. This project made me realize how extremely diverse and interesting parasitic organisms are, and that relatively few scientists are studying them. One book in particular that got me hooked on parasites is Parasite Rex, by Carl Zimmer, and I highly recommend it to everyone who will listen.
What do you do for fun in your spare time?
Even though I did not go into sports medicine, I am still a huge proponent of physical activities! I commute 2000-3000 miles by bike per year, play in soccer leagues, and feel my best while running and working out.
While in college, I competed in track and field in an event called the decathlon, which involves 10 different events over the course of 2 days (everything from sprinting to the mile, and throwing shotput to pole vaulting).
My spouse, Karen, and I also love hiking, camping, traveling, and relaxing with friends. I am also learning how to photograph insects!
What’s your one piece of advice for people interested in biology?
Biology requires much more math and quantitative skills than many people realize, especially because we are able to collect more complex datasets than ever before, no matter if you are studying genes, cells, organisms, or ecosystems. If I could go back in time, I would have focused more on math and statistics during high school and college. Believe it or not, I often use Khan Academy videos if I need to brush up on some calculus or probability theory!