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Student gets the bug for studying parasites

Caitlin Babbitt aims to turn her passion for these ‘gross’ creatures into a career that changes people’s lives.

July 26, 2016

Daniel J Vaccaro

Caitlin Babbitt fell in love at college – with parasites.

She discovered her passion for these unique (read: disgusting) creatures during an invertebrate zoology class at Metropolitan State University of Denver. A parasitology class followed, and cemented her desire to study parasites at the doctoral level after graduation this December.

“I love them because they’re weird,” she said with a laugh. “They are unlike anything else. Even single-cell parasites have more complex cells than anything we have in our bodies. And there is so much that is unknown about them, so much to study, so much to learn. Plus, their effects in a host can be gross, and I kind of love that.”

The biology and chemistry double major admitted it takes a certain kind of person to study parasites. It’s not for the “weak of stomach,” she said. Babbitt traces her own interest in the field – and science in general – to her childhood. Growing up in Colorado, she spent a lot of time outdoors experiencing the natural world and trying to understand the connections between things.

She credits her father with encouraging her scientific curiosity. When she was 12, for example, she decided to make a smoke bomb on the kitchen stove. When her father came home from work, resigned that these experiments would continue regardless of parental approval, he asked that future projects be performed outside on a hot-plate where siblings and pets could not be harmed.

Her love for science carried her through high school and into college, where she originally studied pre-nursing at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. She knew she wanted to use science to help people, but quickly discovered that nursing wasn’t the right path for her. She transferred to MSU Denver to focus on hard science and research.

“I found a home here,” she said of MSU Denver. “The student body is highly motivated and welcoming. The professors are amazing. They took a personal interest in me and my future.”

One of those professors was Cynthia Church, Ph.D., the instructor of the two classes that turned Babbitt on to parasites in the first place. Church has since become one of Babbitt’s mentors and even invited Babbitt to serve as a teacher’s assistant in the parasitology class this fall.

Church immerses her students in the scientific community by bringing them to parasitology conferences, often applying for grants so that the trips are fully funded, Babbitt said.

Last year, Babbitt and her classmates attended the Rocky Mountain Conference of Parasitologists at the Cedar Point Biological Station in Nebraska, where they got to speak with Nobel Prize winner William Campbell.

Campbell is the scientist who developed Ivermectin, a drug that cures parasitic diseases that afflict millions of people in Asia and Africa. He also was instrumental in a decision by pharmaceutical giant Merck to distribute the drug for free to those who couldn't afford it.

“He impressed upon us how almost all important scientific discoveries happen while you’re looking for something else,” Babbitt said, “but that each piece of the puzzle could help the world become a better place. He made the dream of becoming a scientist, and making a major discovery, seem more attainable.”

This July, Babbitt joined Church at the American Society of Parasitologists conference in Edmonton, Canada, where Babbitt rubbed elbows with some of the leading parasite researchers in North America. She also had the opportunity to network with professors from the graduate programs she’ll be applying to this fall. The conference inspired her to push even harder toward her goal of using science to help people.

“Understanding the genetics and biochemistry of parasites could have wide-ranging implications on pharmaceuticals and public health,” she said. “I’d love to add to the population’s general knowledge, contribute some small pieces to the puzzle, and maybe discover something that changes people’s lives.”