Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
November 6, 1998

Discovering the "world" of parasites

by Arianna McKinney, News Service intern

Parasites don't recognize national boundaries, which is why Jeffrey Beetham is at Iowa State.

Beetham is filling a new position in global parasitology, created with Provost Office funding to further internationalize the curriculum.

"The growing trend is the importance of eliminating national boundaries in our perspectives of the world," Beetham said. Parasitology and individual diseases, he pointed out, are not limited to small geographic pockets.

Global parasitology is one of the most important emerging fields in medicine, according to Norman Cheville, veterinary pathology chair. Many parasite-based diseases, such as malaria, come from third-world countries.

"Our American students have no experience with those diseases," he said.

The new global parasitology program is designed to give students more international experience and awareness of the science, medicine, cultural and climate changes that affect disease control, Cheville said. Beetham, he said, will bring new molecular techniques into the program.

Beetham is working with John Kluge, a university professor of veterinary pathology, and Wayne Rowley, professor of entomology, to develop a minor or secondary major in global parasitology, which may be available next fall.

"The classes are already there," Beetham said, "but they hadn't brought it together in one cohesive group."

Beetham is adding one new class, Global Protozoology-- Molecular Biology of Protozoa, which he is developing and will teach next fall.

The class will have a portion about vector-host parasite interaction, the focus of Beetham's research. A vector is the organism that transmits a parasite from one host to another. Beetham also will help team-teach other classes this year.

"My goal in teaching is to participate with students in a discovery program," Beetham said.

He said he wants to get and keep students excited in learning through participation and adding cutting-edge science to the class.

Beetham said he is looking into fostering e-mail discussions between students in the new class and researchers in locales with parasite problems. He intends to use relationships already developed between Iowa State and other research universities in China and Kenya, and with parasitologists he knows personally.

The global parasitology program will include guest lecturers, study abroad options and field research.

Beetham also is responsible for setting up a departmental research laboratory. The lab will be used by undergraduate and graduate students and professors for projects in molecular biology, biochemistry, toxicology and cellular biology.

"When I was applying to graduate schools, I kept open whether I was going to work toward a teaching intensive position or a research intensive position. Here, I get to do both," Beetham said.

Beetham's research focuses on Leishmania chagasi, a single-celled organism that causes a tropical disease in humans called leishmaniasis. The disease can be fatal if not treated.

Leishmania spends part of its life in the sandfly, which then transmits it to mammals. Beetham's research focuses on the form of Leishmania that lives in the sandfly and how the organism changes in order to infect a mammalian host. To switch hosts, Beetham explained, Leishmania changes its biochemistry and surface proteins for the new environment.

When it changes hosts, "It's not the same parasite. It looks different and has different systems," he said.

Beetham's face lights up when he talks about his research. "Parasitology is just one of the neatest things you could work on," he said. "The dramatic changes in the parasite make its biology fun."

The global parasitology position is shared 70 percent by veterinary pathology and 30 percent by entomology.

Beetham's long-term focuses are his research and his family. His wife, Bryony Bonning, is an assistant professor in entomology.

"Most biochemists like to cook, and my wife and I cook together," Beetham said.

He and Bonning are expecting their first child in February.

When he's not studying parasites or cooking, Beetham likes to run. He completed his second marathon this year in the Twin Cities. He said this one didn't hurt as much as the first marathon he ran a year ago in New York City.

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