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Many North Americans who travel to developing countries have to be careful not to get bitten by malarial mosquitoes or drink contaminated water for the risk of contracting a parasitic infection. Yet, these days, even tap water that pours out of our taps at home may contain harmful pathogens containing parasites. Many people all over the world are affected each year with parasitic infections. Parasites are organisms that obtain food and shelter by living on or within another organism or host. Parasites leech onto hosts -- species of plants, animals and humans -- which provide the environment in which the parasite can live and flourish.

A parasite derives all benefits from association with a host, which may not be harmed by the parasite or it may suffer the consequences of a pathogenic parasitic disease. Most parasites depend on this association with their host to live whereas some parasites, called facultative parasites, can live both in and on a host as well as in a free form. It is usually an insect or worm that is responsible for transmitting the parasitic infection.

Parasitologists study parasites in viruses, bacteria, worms and insects, to understand the relationship between two different species where the parasite's environment is another living organism. Parasites and hosts are locked into a continuous struggle for survival. Understanding the mechanisms that each side in this battle uses to gain advantages challenges parasitologists to understand biological phenomena at the cutting edge of a wide variety of scientific disciplines.

Many different career options exist within the field of parasitology since parasites affect the world in so many different ways. Parasitologists can study this discipline in relation to medicine, public health, controlling diseases of domestic animals and producing pest-free plant and animal food.

Medical parasitology focuses on the role that parasites play in causing human disease. For example, millions of people in developing nations suffer from malaria and each year this parasitic disease causes over one million human deaths. Diseases caused by many species of parasitic worms, blood flukes, tapeworms, hookworms, and others are still scourges of mankind. Insect parasites such as fleas and lice are, at best, annoyances to man, whereas diseases like bubonic plague and typhus have been responsible for uncountable human mortality.

Agriculture and veterinary parasitologists study the loss of food due to parasitic diseases of crops, domesticated animals, and animals derived from the increasingly important aquaculture industry. The use of parasites as biological control agents against crop insects holds much promise for increasing agricultural production. Veterinarians play an indirect role in human health when they control parasites in non-human animals that are transmissible to humans.
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  Average Earnings  
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  Interests and Skills  
Parasitologists need an innate interest in natural phenomena and scientific research, and an inquiring mind. They should have good manual dexterity for transferring micro-organisms from one culture medium to another without contaminating samples, and the ability to pay close attention to details. Most have a strong aptitude and background in microbiology, biochemistry and genetics. Parasitologists are usually well organized, enjoy working in the laboratory with equipment and performing tasks which require precision.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Conduct research into the structure, function, ecology, biotechnology and genetics of parasites
  • Isolate organisms in pure culture and identify parasites under controlled conditions
  • Prepare smears, make stains according to recognized procedures and make microscopic examinations of stain slides
  • Observe, identify and classify micro-organisms and parasites
  • Retest analyzed canned foods and water for parasite-producing organisms
  • Research viruses by planting and harvesting parasites, viruses, worms and conducting fixation tests, preparing and transferring suspensions and the preservation of parasites
  • Plan, supervise, and participate in the work of identifying and counting parasitic bacteria in food, water and the environment to detect harmful micro-organisms and control sources of pollution and contamination
  • Make pathological examinations of fish and wild animals to diagnose disease, recommending control and prevention techniques
  • Parasitologists work indoors in laboratories and on computers. The pressure of having to meet project deadlines can be stressful and will often result in longer hours. In general, parasitologists put in long workweeks. For those working with toxic or harmful chemicals, following safety rules and wearing protective equipment will help avoid chemical injury or exposure to infection. Preventive inoculations will also help to protect medical parasitologists from the risk of disease.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Parasitologists work for governments, hospitals, colleges and universities, industrial laboratories, companies in the agricultural industry, pharmaceutical companies, food and beverage companies, diagnostic laboratories, biotechnology firms, and bioremediation companies. Contract work is becoming more common in this occupation, focusing on individual research projects.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Long-term advancement will certainly depend on the education level of the parasitologist. Those with master's degrees may work as professionals in laboratory settings, performing experiments. Parasitologists with PhDs may conduct and lead individual and group research projects and teach in universities, manage hospital (clinical) diagnostic parasitology laboratories or advance to senior scientific appointments in government or industry.

Advancement opportunities for parasitologists may also depend on the size and nature of the employing organization and the qualifications of the employee. They can move into related biology fields such as biochemistry, genetics, ecology, virology or biochemical engineering. They can also become clinical technicians in health care facilities, quality control officers in the food, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries, or bioremediation specialists.

  Educational Paths  
The minimum education requirement for a parasitologist is a four-year Bachelor of Science degree in microbiology, with courses in parasitology and genetics. Those who have a bachelor's degree are qualified to work as laboratory assistants or technicians. A master's degree or PhD is required for senior research positions. Those who have PhDs may continue their training as post-doctoral fellows. Medical parasitologists preparing to work in hospitals usually take a medical degree (MD), then specialize in parasitology.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition,
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002,

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