National research mini conference at UW Oshkosh to focus on parasitology - UW Oshkosh Today
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The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh will serve as host this month for a parasitic research mini conference that will bring professionals from around the world.

The event will introduce students, university professors, veterinarians and industry representatives to organismal and molecular techniques commonly used in filariasis parasitic disease research, said Michelle “Shelly” Michalski, parasitology professor at UW Oshkosh, who will lead the mini-conference.

Zachary Heimark

“Hosting this mini course definitely brings prestige to UWO,” Michalski said. “This is an official National Institute of Health (NIH) event and we have researchers coming from within and outside the U.S. to attend.”

The mini conference has been taught for the past decade at the University of Georgia School of Veterinary Medicine. Michalski said NIH trusted her staff of technicians and students, allowing the event to move to Oshkosh.

Mini conference attendees will hear lectures and work with parasites in UW Oshkosh laboratories.

“They will learn about different aspects of each part of the parasite’s life cycle,” said Zachary Heimark, a May UWO graduate who is serving as a research intern assisting with the conference. He  is scheduled to teach three lab sections during the mini conference event.

Additional instructors teaching are active researchers who study lymphatic filariasis with Michalski: Andrew Moorhead of the University of Georgia-Athens; and Steven Williams of Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.

Parasitic disease in humans, dogs

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes lymphatic filariasis as a neglected tropical disease—a parasitic disease caused by microscopic, thread-like worms. Adult worms live in the human lymph system—a system that maintains the body’s fluid balance and fights infections. The disease is spread by mosquitos.

Obstruction of the body’s lymphatics causes limbs to become swollen and painful—sometimes progressing to elephantiasis, limb deformation or blindness.

“My laboratory has been funded since 2009 to be part of the FR3 (Filariasis Research Reagent Resource Center), and as such we keep the life cycle of the parasites and mosquitoes going in Halsey Science Center,” Michalski said.

“When an order comes in from a researcher who needs worms, we isolate the worms and send them for free. The NIH funds this because it would be prohibitively expensive for every lab that studies lymphatic filariasis to keep the parasite life cycles going—it takes a high degree of technical knowledge to keep them going, and it’s quite tedious, time-consuming and expensive. So by contracting us to make worms, the NIH is freeing up researchers to do science on the worms.”

Michalski said they offer the mini conference because most people working on lymphatic filariasis in industrialized countries have no idea how UW Oshkosh raises the worms. Attendees are educated on the intricacies of worm biology. Endemic country researchers also attend the conference to learn the latest techniques to study the worms.

In addition to the biology of the parasites, conference attendees will learn about clinical treatment of lymphatic filariasis and canine heart worm, as well as diagnosis and worldwide control efforts to eliminate lymphatic filariasis transmission.

UWO student researchers

Typically, about a dozen UW Oshkosh students work during the summer as parasitologists and research technicians, ensuring research projects continue.

Emily Kadolph, a senior biology student, recently was working to identify parasites that may have caused the deaths of seven barn swallows whose bodies were shipped to the lab from sites in Nebraska and South Dakota. Interestingly, one bird from Nebraska contained nine parasites; while birds from South Dakota had none. The challenge was to find what may have caused the birds’ deaths.

Michalski said parasites are naturally highly prevalent in wild and domestic animals, and UW Oshkosh students and faculty enjoy doing human parasitology work as well as being “disease detectives” for wildlife.

Heimark, who has had significant experience the past several years in the parasite lab at UW Oshkosh, said students who work there are able to better conceptualize scientific theory and material they learned in the classroom.

“Doing research over the also mayopen the door to new experiences and opportunities which helps one grow as an up-and-coming research scientist,” he said.

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