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Released March 30, 2005


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 curiosity.

"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."

Bullard concurs.

"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."


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April 14, 2005 12:39 PM