Welcome to The Penczykowski Lab!

Frequently Asked Questions (answered by Rachel Penczykowski):

Q1:  How do you pronounce “Penczykowski”?
A1:  It’s easier if you break it down into the four syllables Pen-czy-kow-ski (which can be spelled out to the tune of The Mickey Mouse Club theme song). The “czy” is pronounced just like “chi” in “chip.” Most Americans (myself included) pronounce the “kow” like “cow”, though a Polish “w” actually sounds like an English “v”.

Q2:  What is the BIG PICTURE of your research?
A2:  Parasites are infamous for causing great harm – and sometimes even death – to their hosts. Understanding risks and consequences of infection is therefore critically important for public health, wildlife management, and agriculture. One aim of our research is to better understand how ecological context (including physical and chemical features of the environment as well as the community of organisms living there) affects the risk of infection and consequences of disease for hosts. This is a particularly important area of research because human-driven changes in climate, land use, and biodiversity are altering the ecological context in which host–parasite interactions occur.

Effects of parasites can also extend beyond host populations. Changes in the density or traits of infected hosts may affect other members of the ecological community, and alter flows of energy and nutrients through food webs. Thus, another aim of our research is to uncover how parasites influence the communities and ecosystems in which they occur.

Q3:  What is your approach to research?
A3:  We use a combination of observational (field), experimental (field + lab), and theoretical (mathematical modelling) approaches.

Q4:  What host–parasite systems do you work on, and where are your field sites?
A4:  Our lab is currently focusing on the interaction between Plantago species and their powdery mildew pathogens along a large latitudinal gradient in the central USA, as well as locally in the St. Louis area. Visit the Research page for details.


Leaf of Plantago lanceolata infected with powdery mildew.

Q5:  How did you become interested in diseases of terrestrial plants?
A5:  This is an excellent question, with a long answer:

When I was in high school in Madison, Wisconsin, I asked my chemistry teacher, Kathy Mosher, whether labs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison ever hired high school students to wash dishes for pay. It turned out that her husband’s lab was looking for a summer assistant, and I had the good fortune to be hired. I started working in Deane Mosher‘s biomolecular chemistry lab the summer after 10th grade, and continued into my freshman year at UW-Madison. There, I progressed from washing dishes, stuffing pipette tips, and brooding fruit flies to performing PCR, western blots, and tissue culture. Deane Mosher and Fran Fogerty got me truly hooked on science, and remain mentors of mine to this day.

As an undergraduate student (2003-2007), I was a research assistant at the UW-Madison Center for Limnology. There, I carried out field and lab work to study phosphorus cycling in lakes. I was mentored by Amy Kamarainen, who was then a PhD student in the lab of Steve Carpenter. I was also part of field crews collecting data on lake chemistry, phytoplankton and zooplankton communities, and fish populations for the North Temperate Lakes Long Term Ecological Research program. I loved this type of field and lab work and genuine research experience. During an Intro to Parasitology course in my senior year, I first learned of the field of disease ecology. After months of grossing out my family and friends with tales of parasites I’d learned about in class, I came to realize that the ecology of host-parasite interactions was the topic I was most passionate about and wanted to pursue for a PhD. I completed my PhD in Biology (2008-2013) in the lab of Meghan Duffy at Georgia Tech, studying how fungal diseases of the small freshwater crustacean Daphnia are affected by lake environments, and the effects of such diseases for aquatic food webs (note: the Duffy Lab has since moved to the Univ. of Michigan).

As I was finishing up my PhD, I began searching (especially on ECOLOG and EvolDir) for post-doc opportunities that would allow me to gain experience researching the ecology and evolution of infectious diseases in systems other than freshwater lakes (since those were the only ecosystems I’d worked in up to then). An advertisement that really caught my attention was an opportunity to work with Anna-Liisa Laine and her group in the Metapopulation Research Centre at the University of Helsinki, Finland. In her lab, I could get a taste for studying terrestrial plant-pathogen interactions in a metapopulation context. My husband was up for the adventure, so we moved to Helsinki. During my post-doc in the Laine group (2013-2016), I learned a ton about wild plant-pathogen dynamics, their scientific and applied importance, and the logistical advantages and challenges of studying such systems. When it was time to apply for faculty positions, I knew that I wanted to continue working on the ecology and evolution of uncultivated herbaceous plants (i.e., “weeds”) and their diseases, and that there was lots of room for me to be an independent researcher in this field.

Finally, though I’m currently focusing on plant-pathogen interactions, I’m quite generally interested in the ecology and evolution of infectious diseases, and I like to learn and think about diseases in a variety of hosts and ecosystems.

Q6:  Does that mean you might do more research on zooplankton and their diseases someday?
A6:  Yes. I’ll always be interested in aquatic disease ecology!

Q7:  What was it like to be a post-doc in Finland? Can I email you with questions about that experience?
A7:  It was an amazing opportunity. Yes, feel free to contact me with any questions.

Q8:  Are you open to talking about aspects of your personal life, such as family?
A8:  Sure! I have a husband and two little kids.