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ODU's Sonenshine Gets a Top Honor in His Field of Ticks and Tick-borne Diseases

Daniel Sonenshine, Old Dominion University professor emeritus and eminent scholar of biological sciences, was awarded one of the highest honors in his field of ticks and tick-borne diseases during a conference in New Orleans this month. The tribute gave him a special reason to reflect on a career that spans five decades.

In many ways, Sonenshine traces his rise to prominence in acarology-the study of ticks and mites-to his introduction almost exactly 50 years ago to Harry Hoogstraal, widely considered to be the 20th century's pre-eminent authority on ticks and tick-borne diseases. "I was a graduate student at the University of Maryland and he was a giant in my area of research, an icon, my idol," said the 75-year-old professor. At the time, Hoogstraal was eight years into what would become an almost 30-year term as head of the Department of Medical Zoology at the U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit No. 3 in Cairo, Egypt.

At that first meeting, the two of them spent only a brief time together discussing tick research, but Hoogstraal apparently came away impressed. "Sometime later, I began to hear that he was recommending me (for a faculty position) to various universities, and I thought this was a gracious thing for him to take the time to do." Later, after Sonenshine joined the Old Dominion faculty in 1961, Hoogstraal visited him and they did field work together related to Rocky Mountain spotted fever research. Still later, Hoogstraal invited Sonenshine to Egypt for research collaboration involving the sex pheromones of the camel ticks, and they were regular correspondents until the elder scientist died of cancer in 1986.

"Working with a person who is one of the great leaders of modern science can be humbling, but also exhilarating," Sonenshine said. "You learn you can play in this game, but that you have to get better. I found that I had a lot farther to go than I thought. I learned what true excellence is, and I was inspired."

The ODU emeritus professor has attained excellence himself as a scientist, and evidence of that came during the awards ceremony of the 57th annual meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) on Sunday evening, Dec. 7. The recipient of the society's prestigious Hoogstraal Medal for outstanding lifelong service internationally in medical entomology was Daniel Sonenshine, Old Dominion University.

Back in Norfolk a few days later, Sonenshine dug a satin-lined box out of his canvas tote and opened it carefully to reveal the Hoogstraal Medal. It is heavy, as big as a hand, and he noted that the engraved depiction of Hoogstraal is a fine resemblance.

"It's good to be recognized by your peers," he said. "Seems that after 200 articles and 12 or 13 monographs published, a sole-authored book on the biology of ticks and a couple of edited books, that some people took notice." The recognition reflects Sonenshine's unique contributions to the ASTMH mission to promote global health through the prevention and control of vector-borne infectious diseases and other diseases that disproportionately afflict the global poor.

The Hoogstraal Medal is not presented every year, just when an exceptional candidate is nominated. Since its inaugural presentation by ASTMH in 1987, only 16 scientists have won it. Other recipients have been from universities such as Harvard, U.C. Berkeley, UCLA, Johns Hopkins, Wisconsin, Illinois, Maryland, U.C. Davis, and the universities of London and Liverpool.

Perhaps the crowning achievement of Sonenshine's career, and the accomplishment that secured his place among the elite who have won the Hoogstraal Medal, is the two-volume text, "The Biology of Ticks," that he wrote during the late 1980s. The first volume was published in 1991 and the second in 1993 by Oxford University Press. With a total of 914 pages, the work covers all aspects of the biology, morphology, systematics, physiology, biochemistry, ecology, disease relationships and control of ticks. The monumental work helped him win Virginia's Outstanding Scientist Award in 1994.

"I foolishly decided to do the book all myself," he said, smiling. "It was like one man building a pyramid." Although the book is now out of print, it is still used by academic researchers and students and the price on the second-hand market is creeping up. "People comment about it at professional meetings and I've been told that some copies are going for several hundred dollars apiece."

That raises the question of a revised second edition. "Quite possible," he responds. "We're talking about it. But this time I'm not doing it all myself. I will be recruiting lots of help."

Sonenshine likes to point out that he "reinvented" himself several times as a scientist and, in the process, he gained the qualifications necessary to write such an all-encompassing book about ticks. "I feel sorry for folks who are frozen back in their first identity," he said, adding that the world moves on and professionals usually must follow suit.

In the 1960s he was into jeans and boots and field work. That sent him out into the wild to trap small animals and collect the ticks that he found on them. In the 1970s he began the transition to the laboratory, often working with chemists, to study insect physiology. The 1980s saw the completion of the transition to the laboratory and into more tightly focused investigations of what makes ticks tick. This has included quite a bit of snooping on the sex lives of ticks and has helped him win six patents for means to control the parasitic creatures.

He is known throughout the world for his strategies to collect and employ tick pheromones to lure them into insecticide traps or to upset their mating habits. These strategies allow the control of ticks and tick-borne diseases with minimal use of insecticides.

More recently he has taken his investigations down to the molecular level. "I play the molecular game mostly with the help of my students," he quipped, explaining how a man in his 70s could segue so successfully into the high-tech world of research on isolation of specific molecules. "I always say, I learn more from my students than they learn from me."

Among his latest pursuits are studies of the innate immunity of ticks. In other words, he wants to know how ticks escape harm from the dangerous microbial agents that they harbor in their bodies. These are the agents that can be spread to mammals by tick bites and cause Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and numerous other tick-borne diseases.

Sonenshine continues his research at ODU even though he formally retired from teaching in 2002. He also is the director of the university's Animal Care Facility. Teamwork with other scientists, the intellectual interaction, the exchange of research results, these continue to stimulate him, he said, and "are a lot of fun." So he claims to have no plans to slow down. And, besides, he has a 900-page book to help revise.

This article was posted on: December 18, 2008

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