BY PETER BURNS

Artwork, T-shirts, and jewelry raise thousands for students at annual ASP auction

At a glance, the painting looks like an iconic beach scene: a palm tree, a boat drifting offshore. But something is not right. Is that a giant worm wriggling around in the boat? Wait—the boat itself is a worm! And the tree is capped with things that look like palm fronds, but who can be sure? Nothing in this picture is what it seems.

Well, there’s no time to analyze it now. The painting is being auctioned off and the bidding is under way. It starts at $100 and in only 10 seconds the price has doubled to $200, with no sign of slowing down.

I am at the 93rd Annual Meeting of the American Society of Parasitologists, in Cancun, Mexico. As publisher of the society’s journal, the Journal of Parasitology, I attend the meeting every year and always look forward to one of the highlights: the annual auction, where bidders compete for parasite-themed T-shirts, books, plush toys, and even jewelry—the fish lice earring/necklace set is gorgeous, by the way. Other items on the block include a bottle of tequila, travel mugs, photographs, playing cards, and a hand-crocheted afghan that folds into itself to make a pillow.

Jewelry
This fish lice earring/necklace set in the ASP silent auction.

Then there’s the current item, the surrealistic beach scene made of giant worms, one of several contributions from Bill Campbell, long-time society member and Nobel Laureate. Bidders who hope to leave with a piece of Bill’s original artwork need to act quickly. Only 30 seconds after the bidding started on the beach scene, the price reaches $400. It will keep going up from there.

It’s a tradition

The auction is an annual tradition that began in 1989 when Don Duszynski, a parasitologist from the University of New Mexico, received some advice from a friend and mentor, Gilbert Castro, of the University of Texas Medical School. Don was still new to his position as society program director when Gilbert pulled him aside and said, “Make the damn meetings fun, Donald. That’s what you have to do to make ASP a success.”

After seeing a small auction at another society’s meeting, Don introduced the concept at an ASP meeting, amid some skepticism. “People laughed at me and they came up and said this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, this will never work,” he said. “Well, the auction now has generated over $100,000 for student travel and it’s one of the social highlights of the meeting.”

Looking around the open-air venue on a summer evening in Cancun, where 230 attendees enjoy complimentary beer and snacks and the bidding reaches a frenzy, it sure looks like Don succeeded in adding some fun to the meeting.

Not only that, but the auction serves a vital purpose. The proceeds go toward student travel grants. It generated a little over $2,000 in its first year; in recent years, annual earnings have exceeded $7,000. Of course, things like this don’t just happen. Co-chairs Kelli Sapp and Lee Couch organized the auction, which means they solicited items, facilitated shipping of items to the meeting, created auction materials such as bidding cards (for the live auction) and bidding sheets (for the silent auction). On site, they mobilized a dozen more volunteers to set up the auction, serve as auctioneers, walk the items around during bidding, and take payments after the last sale.

A good cause

The result of all this hard work is that, each year, numerous graduate students—and even a few undergrads—receive travel grants from the auction. In 2018, 37 students received grants out of 70 applications.

Students
Some of the 37 students who received travel grants in 2018.

One of the beneficiaries this year is Graham Goodman of the University of Utah. Graham is a fourth-year PhD student who was attending his second ASP meeting. The student travel grant allowed him to attend.

“I didn’t have any funding for this meeting,” he said. “The travel grant didn’t pay for all of the trip, but it covered a large chunk.” Attending the meeting was a boon for Graham, who took home three awards, including a student paper award for his presentation on the role of scratching in controlling ectoparasites on birds. These represent the first awards he has received in his career.

“It means so much to me,” he said. “I didn’t know what to expect, coming to this meeting. But within a day of getting here, I already had found out about several postdoc opportunities that I wouldn’t have known about before. These are really important career opportunities for me.” The networking with members of ASP, Graham said, is key. “Getting to meet the people whose papers you read and have conversations about their research has really been the best part for me.” After finishing his PhD next year, he hopes to get a job teaching parasitology and animal behavior at a small liberal arts college.

Another student who benefitted this year is Emily Durkin, a PhD candidate from the University of Alberta.

“I applied for a travel grant because I had no other funding for this trip,” she said. After earning her PhD in the fall, she hopes for a postdoc position, another step on the way to a career in research and teaching. Her presentation at the meeting on the ecology and evolution of parasitism should help, because it’s finding the appropriate audience. “This gives me an opportunity to share what I do with people who actually care about what I do,” she said. “I’ve been to other meetings and some of them are so large or maybe don’t have as much interest in parasites or parasitology. I feel like this is my favorite platform to represent my work.”

Both Graham and Emily used the word “love” to describe how they feel about what they do. It’s that kind of dedication that fueled Bill Campbell’s career and, eventually, his artwork.

“I had a family and a career and thought nothing of it,” he said about his artistic talents. “Later, I was at a point in my career where I could find some time to paint, so I started painting but I had no theme. I had no passion for what I was painting. I would copy famous paintings or I’d paint a landscape that I didn’t care about. Then I suddenly thought about painting what I do care about which is parasites. Not a scientific illustration but a painting of parasites.”

But what to do with the paintings? That’s where the auction came into play.

“So I did this crazy little painting of what I called a parasite monster because it had this alien-type figure with googly eyes made up of parasites and it was all composed of parasites, parasite eggs, and so on, and I thought do I dare take it to an auction? And I thought well, yes I will, but I’m not sure I’ll have the nerve to attend the auction in case nobody bids for this.”

Of course, he needn’t have worried.

“I remember that auction so well, because I didn’t know whether to crawl into my seat when I decided I would go. And people started bidding for it and it went for a remarkably decent price to a Korean scientist. So I thought well, that’s a start. So I started doing it.”

Bidding war

From such tentative beginnings to this night, where the bidding on the beach scene is heating up. One minute and 30 seconds after starting, the bid is up to $675.

Interest in Bill’s paintings has always been high, but grew even more after he received a share of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work in developing the drug ivermectin, which is used to treat parasitic worms that cause health problems for humans (such as river blindness) and animals (such as heartworm).

Now, auctioneers have one more way to prod bidders. “Come on folks, own a painting by a Nobel Prize winner!” The prodding works. Over the years, Bill’s artwork has generated more than $24,000 to the auction.

Bill’s pieces have inspired others to contribute, too. One artist created a quilted fabric piece based on one of his paintings, and a necktie featuring another of his paintings is receiving bids in the silent auction, alongside the Giardia plush toy and the T-shirt with the scatological message “Parasitologists are #1 in the #2 business.” Not a place for the squeamish, but then again this is a crowd that doesn’t even notice the person walking around in an 8-foot-tall hookworm costume.

Of course, that’s because they are focused on the bidding. After a few minutes, an all-out bidding war erupts. It breaks the four-digit barrier when a voice shouts from the crowd. “ONE! THOUSAND! DOLLARS!” Bill turns and smiles. The crowd applauds and wonders—how much higher? The auctioneer rides the momentum. Another bid, then another, and finally—not quite 5 minutes after bidding began—SOLD! The painting goes for $1,075 to an attendee in the front row.

The winning bidder: Ann Adams of Kansas City, Kansas. As it turns out, this is Ann’s second big score. She was the winning bidder on a Bill Campbell original at the previous year’s meeting, where she also came away more than $1,000 lighter. What’s more, she is the artist who contributed the quilted fabric based on one of Bill’s paintings. It sold tonight for $1,125.

Painting
Bill Campbell, the artist, with Ann Adams, the winning bidder.

After the meeting, Ann, a retired parasitologist who used to work for the FDA, helped a nonscientist understand the beach scene. Its formal title: “Worm on a Tropical Island.”

“The boat and the occupant are basically schistosome trematodes,” she said.

Just as I thought: parasitic worms.

“The male is the boat and the female lies in the gynaechophoric canal, which is basically in that case the interior of the boat. So you’ve got the female lying in and around the boat, which is the male.”

OK, but what about the tree?

“The palm tree is actually a cestode, or tapeworm. The trunk is basically the strobila, the chains of proglottids, and the palm fronds are the scolex, the head of the tapeworm.”

The scolex is the part that latches on. You want to avoid it, but that’s easy because this particular parasite doesn’t infect humans.

“This is a tapeworm of an elasmobranch, which would be the sharks, rays, and skates. They tend to have the more ornate type of heads—scolices—so they lend themselves more to this kind of art.”

But wait, there are also little red cylindrical things on the top.

“That’s part of the scolex. A nonparasitologist might think there’s a four-pack of beer up there, but that’s not the case. It’s part of the tapeworm.”

And why would Ann pay more than $1,000 for something like this? “It’s a good cause,” she said. “They’re probably more expensive now that he’s a Nobel Laureate, but I’ve always liked his paintings. They have a bit of whimsy to them. They’re colorful. Nonparasitologists are attracted to them, not realizing what they’re looking at.”

Ah, but the parasitologists know. All part of Bill’s plan.

“My approach is not to be scientifically accurate,” he said. “They are not realistic, but they are representational so that parasitologists know exactly what’s there. And of course to me that’s important. And parasitologists can often relate and often have a connection to a particular parasite. Often they discovered the parasite that happens to be incorporated in the painting. So it’s all synergistic enjoyment.”

By the end of the night, thanks to Bill, Ann, and many others, ASP has raised more than $7,000, which will help bring more students to next year’s meeting, to be held in Rochester, Minnesota. That means more presentations, more awards, and more scientists who will change the world. And, rest assured, they will have fun while doing it.