Ocean Springs– Say
"parasite" and most people say "yuck." For a
graduate student at The University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf
Coast Research Laboratory, however, parasites represent scientific
challenge and adventure.
In his quest for new knowledge about parasites, Ash
Bullard has been stranded on a desert island in the Gulf of California,
wrestled sharks from gill nets in crocodile-infested waters in Australia
and encountered angry military police in West Africa.
A recent National Science Foundation grant is supporting
Bullard in the next stage of his research through an $11,677 award
to Dr. Robin Overstreet, Bullard's major professor and a marine
parasitologist at the GCRL.
The NSF is an independent federal agency that promotes
scientific progress through support of research conducted by American
universities and colleges. Bullard will use the NSF grant to study
the genetic structure of fish blood flukes. The fish parasites he
is studying are related to the blood flukes that cause a disease
that kills about a million people each year throughout the tropics.
In the fall, Bullard will head to the laboratory of
Dr. Scott Snyder at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Snyder
is a world authority on blood fluke molecular systematics, the classification
and study of the natural relationships of organisms.
Bullard will use DNA to help piece together a "family
tree" for blood flukes. He hopes to show how the parasites
evolved in their various hosts as well as how they coexist with
their hosts and cause disease.
Now a doctoral candidate in the Department of Coastal
Sciences at the GCRL, Bullard started his scientific experience
as a 19-year-old college freshman interning with Dr. George Benz
at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga.
"At that time, I wanted to do something with
sharks, not parasites," the Chattanooga native said.
Benz introduced him to parasites of sharks and stingrays.
It wasn't long before Bullard became more fascinated by the parasites
than the sharks, and that was the beginning of his career as a parasitologist.
"Most people interested in biology want to study
how animals interact," he said. "That is the soap opera
of nature. Parasitism is the ultimate system for studying how animals
interact. There are such tight interactions between the parasite
and host. They are so intimately linked."
The field also satisfies Bullard's intense scientific
"You can ask questions at a lot of different
levels," he said. "You can also use parasites as indicators
of fish stock structure and environmental health."
Benz urged Bullard to study with Overstreet, an authority
on parasites and diseases of marine and aquatic animals. After graduating
cum laude with a bachelor's degree in marine science from the University
of South Carolina at Columbia in 1997, Bullard moved to Mississippi
to work with Overstreet, earning his master's in coastal sciences
from Southern Miss in 2002.
Bullard's avid research about parasites and diseases
of marine and freshwater fishes has already contributed new knowledge
in the field. He has published 19 articles or book chapters in peer-reviewed
international, national and regional scientific literature.
"The Department of Coastal Sciences is proud
of Ash," said Dr. Jeffrey Lotz, professor and chair of the
department headquartered at GCRL. "His efforts have paid off,
and he has been recognized by NSF for his potential as a young scientist."
Lotz said the award is not only a tribute to Bullard,
but it also reflects favorably on the mentoring by Overstreet, a
professor in the department.
"The success of one of our students indicates
that our young doctoral program in coastal sciences is developing
a reputation as one that provides a quality educational experience."
"The faculty and senior scientists at the GCRL
are incredibly supportive of any grant-funded research you want
to do," he said. "I basically started doing this (research)
when I was 19. It was the first exposure I had to a professional
career in science.
"Once I started, I knew that this was what I
wanted to do."