Biology grad remembers his roots

September 12, 2007 - 7:04am

Dr. Aaron Jex has gone a step further than most graduates to honour his home-town university-college.

He’s named an animal in honour of Malaspina University-College and three of his former professors.

Jex, a graduate of Malaspina’s Biology degree program, is now a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Melbourne in Australia. “He’s highly regarded as a leader in his field dealing with the ecology, molecular genetics and evolutionary relationships of nematode parasites of insects,” said Malaspina Biology professor Dr. Tim Goater.

Jex has discovered an amazing 21 new species of parasites, and published their descriptions in several scientific journal papers. He named one of the pesky critters after Malaspina and his former professors including Goater, Dr. Allan Gibson and Dr. Matthew Hoch.

“I called one of them Malaspinanema goateri,” explained Jex. “The genus name honours Malaspina, and the species name honours Tim because he was a fantastic professor.” Jex added that Gibson and Hoch were also excellent professors, and their parasitic namesakes are Cordonical gibsoni and Hammerschmidtiella hochi.

Having an animal species named after him is flattering, said Goater, “even if it's an obscure worm parasite living in the intestines of cockroaches.”

“Seriously, it’s great to see that Aaron hasn’t forgotten his academic roots, or his home town,” added Goater. “I’ve known Aaron for about 10 years, and watched him achieve great things. Since graduating from Malaspina, he’s one of five Biology grads to obtain the Doctor of Philosophy degree, a remarkable achievement, indeed. I’m very proud of him.”

Malaspina awarded Jex the 2007 Alumni Horizon Award at convocation in June in recognition of his outstanding achievements since graduation. He’s Malaspina’s third Biology graduate to win this award. 

Jex grew up in Nanaimo and attended John Barsby Secondary School. He graduated with distinction from Malaspina’s Bachelor of Science degree program (Biology) in 2000, and Goater and other faculty encouraged him to apply for graduate school and for major scholarships. 

Jex was awarded the prestigious Queen Elizabeth II Centennial Commonwealth Scholarship to study in the Department of Parasitology and Microbiology at the University of Queensland in Australia. He was also offered a scholarship to complete his Ph.D. at the University of Victoria.

Only 22 at the time, Jex faced a major decision – play it safe and continue his education on Vancouver Island, or travel to a different hemisphere thousands of miles from home. Jex sought Goater’s advice, one of the many Malaspina professors whom he considered a close friend and mentor.  “For Tim, there was no decision to make,” said Jex. “He said studying parasitology at the University of Queensland is like studying law at Harvard.”

Jex left family and friends and headed ‘down under’ where he excelled at his studies. In a few short years, he has authored twelve scientific papers - eight from his Ph.D. and four from his post-doctoral research. His Ph.D thesis, approved in August 2006, focussed on parasite ecology and biodiversity in Australian insects.

“Aaron’s productive research record is remarkable for someone so early in his career,” said Goater. “His work is multidisciplinary and he’s mastered many essential technical skills enabling him to be at the forefront of his field, including modern molecular genetics techniques and the complex statistical analyses and computer software used in deciphering evolutionary relationships among animals.”

Jex was awarded the prestigious Linkage International Australian Postdoctoral Fellowship by the Australia Research Council to study at the University of Melbourne. He’s now conducting collaborative research with colleagues from around the world. 

“My research primarily involves water and food borne diseases in humans and animals,” Jex explained.  “One project focuses on a parasite called Cryptosporidium, which causes problems in the gastrointestinal tract of humans. It’s a massive problem in undeveloped countries,  and there have been outbreaks in Kelowna, Milwaukee, and Walkerton. I’m monitoring levels of Cryptosporidium in deer populations in urban water catchment areas around Melbourne because the parasite presents a potential risk to the cities’drinking water due to the parasite’s ability to resist chlorination.”

Jex 's second area of research involves trying to develop better molecular methods to test for and identify the parasite.

Currently home in Nanaimo to visit his parents (Katie and Rick), Jex has taken the time to visit his former professors at Malaspina. “I travel all over the world, attending and presenting at scientific conferences,” said Jex, “and I often tell others about the quality of undergraduate education I received at Malaspina, mostly due to the diverse hands-on research experiences and personal contact with faculty.

“Attending Malaspina was a natural choice,” he added. “It was my home-town university-college, and less expensive than attending a big-city university. I graduated without any student debt. It wasn’t until I was actually at Malaspina, and even more so in the years since leaving Malaspina, that I realized what a unique opportunity this university has to offer. I have received tremendous mentorship and friendship from my MUC professors, and continue to be amazed by the encouragement and support they still give me today.”

As for the future? Jex is getting married in February, and plans to remain in Australia for at least two more years. “Eventually I’d love to come back to BC and work at a major university with a lab of my own,” he said.  “That's my dream.”

 


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