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A parasitologist is a scientist that studies parasites, and the relationship between the parasites and their hosts. While parasites can be found in any form of animal or plant life, parasitology is usually confined to the study of protozoan and metazoan parasites. A parasitologist also examines the way in which parasites move from host to host, and the effects that the parasites have upon on these hosts. He or she also looks for ways to fight parasites and prevent them from spreading disease. Because of the nature of living organisms, there is some overlap between the field of parasitology and other scientific disciplines, such as immunology, cell biology, microbiology, and molecular biology.
Given the complex nature of the field, parasitologists work in many different capacities. For example, a medical parasitologist studies parasites that are found in humans. These include common parasites such as lice, fleas, and ticks, as well as more invasive organisms, such as pinworms, which are usually found in the colon, and tapeworms, which result from eating undercooked beef. Medical parasitologists are also concerned with more serious parasitic infections. Ticks may infect humans with Lyme disease, and mosquitoes are not only responsible for the spread of malaria, but viral diseases such as yellow fever and encephalitis, as well.
A medical parasitologist attempts to treat numerous conditions by performing research in several fields. Epidemiology, immunology, chemotherapy, and pathology are all areas of interest to the medical parasitologist. Through research, vaccines against certain types of parasites have been developed, and the spread of many parasitic diseases has been considerably slowed.
Parasitologists may also work in the veterinary field, studying parasites that attack animals. These include farm animals that are raised for food or work, as well as domesticated animals that are kept as pets. In addition, a veterinary parasitologist may also study the parasites that are found in wildlife.
Common veterinary parasites include fleas, ticks, mites, mange, and various worms. Heartworms are probably the best known parasites among pet owners, as heartworms can infect both dogs and cats. Veterinary parasitologists are often employed by pharmaceutical companies where they research therapies and vaccines that may eradicate parasites in animals. Since some parasites may be passed from animal to human, veterinary parasitologists can also play a role in public health issues.
Some parasitologists also work in the field of agriculture. They help farmers protect crops and plants from destructive parasites. An agricultural parasitolgoist may also research the possible use of parasites as a means of fighting insects that would also attack crops.
For a career as a parasitologist, an undergraduate degree in biology or chemistry is usually required, though many parasitologists have a Bachelor of Science in microbiology. A master’s degree or PhD, however, typically is necessary for senior research positions in parasitology. If a career in medical parasitology is desired, a medical degree may also be required.