Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Mentor Profile with Ben LaFrentz, USDA-ARS Aquatic Animal Health Research Unit

Dr. Benjamin LaFrentz has been actively conducting basic and applied research in the area of aquatic animal health since 2000, with a special emphasis on pathogenic Flavobacterium spp. He is employed as a Research Molecular Biologist at the USDA-ARS Aquatic Animal Health Research Unit in Auburn, Alabama.  He completed his undergraduate training in Animal Ecology (Aquaculture emphasis) at Iowa State University (2000) and MS and PhD in Fishery Resources at The University of Idaho (2002, 2007).  During his graduate training, he worked collaboratively with the rainbow trout aquaculture industry on research projects aimed at developing vaccines for Flavobacterium psychrophilum, the causative agent of bacterial coldwater disease.  Through these projects, he has conducted research on host immune mechanisms, identification and characterization of immunogenic antigens, vaccine development, and identification of virulence factors of bacterial pathogens.  Currently, he is applying his expertise towards important bacterial pathogens of channel catfish and tilapia to develop new methods for disease prevention that will improve the productivity, quality, and profit of these important aquaculture species.

1.      How did you get to where you are today?
I have always had a passion for fish. As a child, I raised guppies and collected “data” on them, perhaps sparking my interest in research! After high school I attended Iowa State University and majored in animal ecology with an emphasis in aquaculture. During my junior or senior year, I took an interesting fish pathology course and felt this was my path. After graduating ISU, I was fortunate to get accepted to graduate school at the University of Idaho and obtained my MS and PhD degrees conducting research on bacterial coldwater disease. In 2008, I was hired as a research molecular biologist at the USDA-ARS Aquatic Animal Health Research Unit in Auburn, AL.

2.      What do you like most about your current job? 
The thing I enjoy the most about my job is that I am always learning something new. Research is exciting (and frustrating at times) and results from one study may lead you down a road that you never thought about traveling. Combining basic and applied research with the goal of solving a problem to improve fish health is very satisfying to me.

3.      When and why did you first become involved with AFS and the FHS? 
I joined AFS in 1999 while an undergraduate student and joined the FHS as a graduate student. At the University of Idaho, I was actively involved in the Palouse Student Subunit of the Idaho Chapter AFS and served as Co-President and Secretary. In 2004, I attended a FHS EXCOM meeting and the committee expressed interest in revamping the FHS website. I had some experience in developing websites, so I volunteered to serve as the website editor. This proved to be an invaluable opportunity as it allowed me to meet, network, and interact with many FHS members. Additionally, I have served on the Communications Committee, Student Involvement Committee, and Nominating and Balloting Committee.    

4.      How do you feel that FHS has influenced your career path? 
My involvement with the FHS has allowed me to interact with many FHS members and build lasting friendships and collaborations with other fish health professionals. It has opened the door to opportunities that would not have been possible.  

5.     What do you see for the future of the FHS? 
I see the future of the FHS continuing its long standing reputation of connecting fish health professionals nationally and internationally, promoting the science, developing professional and technical standards, and developing young professionals.  

6.     What has been your favorite part about being a part of the FHS network? 
My favorite part of the FHS network has been interacting with other members through involvement and meetings. Attending FHS meetings are rewarding for numerous reasons including learning more about current issues and research in fish health, building collaborations, meeting new people, and reconnecting with others.

7.     Who were your mentors as you were an up-and-coming fish health specialist? 
As an undergraduate at Iowa State University, I was fortunate to be advised and mentored by Bob Summerfelt. Through his mentoring, Bob introduced me to research and provided me with many of the skills that I needed to be successful. During my graduate research in Idaho, Ken Cain and Scott LaPatra taught me experimental design, research techniques, and how to write effectively. They also provided me with opportunities to attend meetings, assist with on-farm research, and explore side research projects. I will always be grateful for these mentors. I’ve met different fish health professionals with exemplary research programs, values, and attitudes which have indirectly served as mentors or role models.

8.     What would you say to yourself now, when you were going through school? 
I think it is important to work hard, keep an open mind, jump on opportunity, and find balance to ensure you play hard at times too.

9.     If you mentor students currently or hire new graduates, what sort of qualities do you look for? 
I mentor students on occasion, but I think the most important qualities are curiosity and enthusiasm.     

10.    Any words of wisdom to up-and-coming FHS students and new members? 
Get involved and build relationships with other FHS members.

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