Medical parasitologists focus on the parasites that live in or on the body and cause disease either directly or because of the host’s compromised immune system. Parasitologists are attracted to their field because of their focus and interest in scientific curiosity which allows them to research and understand parasites and their affect on mankind. The research opportunities available are vast and opportunities to apply research anywhere from the molecular level to the global level are present.
What is a Parasitologist?
A medical parasitologist studies parasites and their affect on humans including transmission points, spreading diseases, and the consequences of contracting them in the human body. These parasites can be in the form of viruses, bacteria, worms or insects, which each can have an adverse affect on humans under certain conditions. A parasitologist may encounter diseases like malaria, yellow fever, encephalitis, Lyme disease and many, many others.
These specialized physicians focus on the role parasites play in causing human disease. Parasites can be minor, barely causing a reaction in a person and not communicable, or they can be the causes of major epidemics like the bubonic plague and other historical medical events significant to humans. Because of the broad scope of parasitology, parasitologists can find themselves pulling from a variety of disciplines in order to complete their work including: epidemiology, chemotherapy, immunology, and pathology. Parasitologists may also be involved in research within the fields of molecular and cellular biology, genetics and physiology.
Parasitology offers a variety of areas of study including work within the medical field and in research as parasitologists help the overall understanding made available about the biological world. Parasitologists who focus on public health can work at a national, state or local level and can be employed by the World Health Organization. Recently, private industries, philanthropic and charitable organizations that are focused on health throughout the world have also started to employ public health parasitologists to aid in developing the solutions their organizations are dedicated to finding.
Educational Requirements for a Parasitologist
The minimum educational level required for a research parasitologist is a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and/or chemistry and consider continued Master’s level or Ph.D. work. To work with patients it is necessary to obtain a doctorate degree, likely focusing on infectious diseases and then complete a fellowship in parasitology, which is outlined below.
Step-by-Step Educational Path to Becoming a Medical Parasitologist
The bachelor’s degree is where an aspiring parasitologist gets their foundational knowledge of biology and chemistry, which will be a continued focus of study throughout their education and career development. With a focus on the sciences, the student will get the knowledge they need to apply to medical school, proving they have taken all pre-requisite courses and to take the MCAT – the Medical College Admission Test.
While there is no specific degree necessary at this level in order to be a parasitologist, the aspiring parasitologists focus and interest in the sciences will likely lead them to major in biology, chemistry or another science. While studying, it is advised that the student also gain experience in a patient care setting through volunteering or additional patient or healthcare focused training. At this level, obtaining work as a research assistant would also be beneficial both to education and career aspirations.
Some undergraduate programs offer courses in parasitology that can help introduce students the many facets of the science and the career path they may need to plan in order to achieve their goals. While their further education will dive more in depth, these foundational courses are a great way to gain insight and understanding into their future fields of study as well as show their dedication to the subject.
The Medical College Admission Test is a pre-requisite of most medical schools. The test scores the student on their scientific knowledge of basic principles and their ability to think critically and problem solve. The test is generally taken the junior year of undergraduate work and the score sent to the medical schools where the student is applying. The MCAT is a challenging test and it is advised that students take advantage of as many training courses as possible which are available online and through tutoring or classroom time throughout the country.
A student wishing to be a medical parasitologist will then attend medical school, where they can focus on developing further scientific knowledge and begin learning how to operate in a clinical setting. Medical school should have influenced the education choices of the student during their undergraduate study. Entrance will be dependent on the student’s cumulative undergraduate GPA, GPA in the sciences, letters of recommendation, extra-curricular activities and any proven dedication to the field of medicine, patient care or parasitology like research work, volunteering or specific training programs completed.
Medical school will consist of four total years of training. The first two will be focused on scientific coursework, lab work and an introduction to the practice of medicine. After the first two years of schooling the student will take Step One of the United States Medical License Exam (USMLE) which will test their basic knowledge and show they are ready to begin interacting with patients under supervision.
The second two years of medical school are called rotations. During this time the student will be exposed to various medical specialties and will be able to see their skills and interests at work in a variety of settings. It is wise during this time to identify where the student’s passions are and connect with a mentor that can help guide the student into a field of study that will fit their desires, natural abilities and personal characteristics.
After the two years of rotations students will take Step Two of the USMLE, which will show they have learned the complexities of the clinical setting and can combine their education and knowledge in the classroom setting with practical situations.
Those interested in becoming a parasitologist will complete an internal medicine residency usually lasting three years. During these three years the resident will come in contact with a variety of patients and be able to hone their clinical skills under some supervision, though not as strict as during medical school. For residents interested in parasitology, it is a good idea to look at residency programs that will expose them to patients dealing with parasites or programs that have a focus on parasitological research.
The hands-on patient care programs best for aspiring parasitologists may be found overseas, in tropical climates where people are both more exposed to parasites and have less medical access to deal with the outcome of exposure. After residency, the student will need to pass Step Three of the USMLE upon which they will be licensed as a doctor in the United States.
The next step for a medical parasitologist is to begin work with an infectious disease fellowship. This fellowship will show the student what it is like to work with patients that have infectious diseases, how the disease affect their lives and families and what medical responses are available. Again, if the physician wants to further specialize in parasitology, it is important to find an infectious disease fellowship that will give them the opportunity to learn more about parasites and their affect on humans, whether that be in the United States or part of an overseas program.
Infectious disease fellowships are generally three years long. An additional year focused primarily on parasitology will conclude the physicians training and ensure they are prepared to work as a parasitologist in any of the settings mentioned below.
Understanding the Career Path
Parasitologists can begin working as such with a bachelor’s degree, though most have a doctorate. Above, the career path explained ensures that the parasitologist will be able to engage in patient care or work within a research setting with the most opportunity afforded to them. The medical or immune-parasitology career track has a strong educational and experiential foundation which provides a variety of options for work settings and earning potential.
Parasitologists have a variety of work environments available to them including working in the food, agriculture or pharmaceutical industries, clinical laboratories, environmental firms or as research assistants in universities studying parasites. For those desiring to work primarily with patients, it is important to gain the necessary experience and education for the medical setting and state licensure.
Parasitologists who complete the medical career track listed above have the ability to practice in many settings outside of the United States with governmental departments, public health officials, nonprofits and health organizations and more. Many parasitologists are drawn by this aspect of the career as it affords them a lot of diversity and continued intrigue throughout their chosen career.
The salary for Parasitologists varies due to experience level, area of focus, employment type and location and other factors. Entry-level pay is reported at $31,250 while the average salary is $51,020 and the maximum is reported at $87,060 for non-medical parasitologists. Pay can be comparable to epidemiologists and microbiologists in some settings, which both average around $65,000 a year.
For someone who works first as a doctor of internal medicine or infectious disease, and then focuses on parasitology as a sub-specialty, differentiating themselves from their peers and opening up the door work with organizations like the World Health Organization or state and local health departments and departments of epidemiology. An infectious disease physician earns a median income of $175,000 a year.
Certifications and Memberships
The American Society of Parasitologists is open to anyone engaged in the industry including practice, research, government or academia and is interested in the study and teaching or parasitology.
Parasitology and Vaccinations
Vaccines are a hot topic today. The number of vaccines recommended for children has increased exponentially over the last 60 years – up 414% since 1950 for families in the United States. The link to parasites and vaccines is an important one and one that immuno-parasitologists need to understand and be able to communicate.
Vaccines prevent disease-causing parasites from attacking the population and spreading – which make them a strong public health tool. The use of vaccinations has been linked directly to increased mortality rates and decreases in dangerous diseases like polio. Some diseases that were once major risks are basically unseen in the developed world where their vaccinations exist.
Arguments against vaccines include side-effects and lack of long-term study, both areas a parasitologist would be able to address with educated facts and information to help the greater public’s understanding of disease prevention.
Tips for Success
According to the American Society of Parasitologists, aspiring parasitologists should stay away from overspecialization in any particular scientific field. This will help ensure that the physician is able to see how each element works together and take various scientific theories into consideration. The American Society of Parasitologists also recommends establishing a working knowledge of mathematics, computer science and statistics in order to be able to complete the skills needed for all areas of parasitology.