A program that focuses on the scientific study of biological organisms living in ecologically exploitative and competitive relationships with host organisms, and the role of parasites in causing injury, disease, and environmental damage. Includes instruction in vector biology, immunoparasitology, medical parasitology, molecular biology of parasitical associations, veterinary and comparative parasitology, chemotherapeutics, and ecological and systematic parasitology.
Parasitologists work with parasites such as worms, viruses, bacteria, and insects in order to better understand their relationship to the natural world.
Parasites must live in or on other organisms in order to thrive; these are called "hosts", since they provide food and shelter to the parasites that choose them. This relationship benefits the parasite, but can have terrible consequences for the host organism, whether it's a plant, an animal, or a human. Parasitologists study every aspect of this relationship - how parasites find their hosts, how they feed, how the host may suffer from their presence, how parasites grow, change, or reproduce, and more.
A parasite's presence tends to be irritating, with side effects that range from unpleasant to deadly; insects and single-celled organisms frequently carry or transmit infections. This tendency to carry disease is a large part of why parasites are so dangerous; it's the difference between an ordinary mosquito bite and a mosquito bite that causes malaria. There are so many types of parasitic organisms, including ticks, tapeworms, and single celled organisms in contaminated water, and it takes constant work to keep up with the damage they can cause.
Work in parasitology may include...
- Studying the effects of parasitic presence on host organisms
- Observing parasite traits and behaviors
- Finding ways to mitigate the harmful effects of parasitism
- Applying knowledge of parasites to medical, environmental, or industrial pursuits
- Developing diagnostic tests
The work environment of a parasitologist usually depends on their particular focus. Medical parasitologists investigate the role of parasites in human hosts; they may be clinicians, researchers, or public health officials working to solve human health crises and treat emerging diseases. Some parasitologists focus on parasites in plant or animal hosts, working alongside botanists or veterinarians to protect crops, livestock, pets, and product from parasitic interference. Still others work with federal agencies like the USDA to manage parasites in wildlife management, forestry, or fisheries, or conduct research on parasite populations in different environments. Parasitologists also appear in various areas of academia, conducting university research or educating students about the discipline.
Becoming a parasitologist requires knowledge of many subjects and an understanding of how they are connected. It's a good idea to focus on biology at the undergraduate level, with supporting coursework in chemistry, ecology, statistics, epidemiology, and public health. Many industry jobs look for candidates with a Bachelor's degree, and these positions can provide great hands-on experience to graduates new to the field.
Students who want to work with parasites in a structured research environment can pursue the discipline at the graduate level. Master's and Doctoral programs in biology may provide opportunities for aspiring parasitologists to do lab work, field study, and intensive research on parasites over a period of several years and publish their findings. Some take a different route and opt for medical school, where they focus on treating conditions caused by parasites. An interest in the field can go in so many directions, and since it's not what most would consider a pleasant subject, there are usually jobs for candidates who display interest.
Parasites are numerous, complex, and relevant organisms, and understanding them provides valuable insight into the natural world. If you're curious about what they do, parasitology might be the career that keeps on giving.
For more information, please follow the links below:
- The American Society of Parasitologists aims to improve understanding of parasites, parasitic diseases, and parasitism and to disseminate this knowledge worldwide.
- The World Federation of Parasitologists promotes and coordinates the exchange of knowledge, research, and other activities related to parasitology.
- The World Association for the Advancement of Veterinary Parasitology is an organization for scientists who study the parasites of non-human animals.
- The Center for Disease Control’s page on Parasites has a number of interesting and relevant resources.