Times Colonist

Malaspina educators star in a bug’s life

Ex-student discovers ‘gold mine’ of new species and names them for his former professors

- BY JEFF BELL Times Colonist staff

Some people have mountains named for them. For others, it can be roads, rivers or hospital wings.

But for three professors who taught Aaron Jex at Nanaimo’s Malaspina University-College, their namesakes have a little less cachet. Thanks to the grateful former student, Tim Goater, Allan Gibson and Matthew Hoch have lent their identities to three newly discovered species of parasites.

That’s right, parasites — and parasites that live in the intestines of cockroache­s, to boot.

Malaspina itself has also been honoured in the naming process, said the 29year-old Jex, who has been at home in Nanaimo for a visit with his parents. He’s now headed back to the University of Melbourne in Australia, where he is doing post-doctoral research in various aspects of parasitolo­gy.

In all, Jex has uncovered 21 previously unknown species of parasites in his recent research efforts. One of the three bearing a back-home stamp is called Malaspinan­ema goateri, with the genus name recognizin­g Malaspina and the species name singling out Goater. The other two, Cordonical gibsoni and Hammerschi­dtiella hochi, came with pre-existing genus names but recognize Gibson and Hoch in their species notations.

For Goater, a biology professor, having his name in the lexicon of Australian fauna is quite a milestone — even if the creature that bears his name is visible only with a microscope. “It’s a huge honour,” said Goater, whose area of expertise is also parasitolo­gy.

He called Jex “an incredible fellow” who made a big impression during his time at Malaspina.

“He was a shining star in our department, and he’s really gone far. He came across this gold mine of new species never seen by science before, so it was pretty exciting on all fronts.”

Just getting to Australia was a major achievemen­t for Jex, who won a Queen Elizabeth II Centennial Commonweal­th Scholarshi­p to the University of Queensland at the age of 22. He was also offered a scholarshi­p at the University of Victoria to complete his PhD, but made the choice to study overseas.

Malaspina acknowledg­ed Jex’s academic success this past June by presenting him with its annual Alumni Horizon Award. For his part, Jex often extols the virtues of his hometown school when he speaks at academic gatherings around the world. “I think very highly of Malaspina and the biology program there,” he said.

Jex pointed out that the cockroache­s he studies are different than those most North Americans have seen.

“The type of cockroache­s these parasites live in are, thankfully, not the household pests that are disgusting and nasty. They’re ones that live in the rainforest and burrow in the soil in Australia. One of them burrows about a metre deep in the soil and is the world’s biggest cockroach — it’s nearly the size of the palm of your hand. They’re really quite something.”

Jex is currently working with the Melbourne Water Corp. on a project that deals with cryptospor­idium, a parasite that can cause problems in watersheds.

Goater said Jex’s work with parasites could have broad applicatio­ns to other areas of research.

“People tend to bat around the term biodiversi­ty, but they tend to ignore the things that are invisible to most of us.”

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