Parasitology at the Natural History Museum, London

A few days from graduating, MSc Medical Parasitology alumnus Tom Pennance looks back on his time at the School and how it has led to his current role at the Natural History Museum:

The graduation ceremony for the School’s graduates of 2014 is fast approaching, which has provided me with a nice opportunity to reflect on what has happened since the end of my MSc in Medical Parasitology and how it has formed the basis of my past year.

During my Master’s I developed a specific interest in human and animal diseases caused by parasitic helminths, widening my knowledge about their vectors / intermediate hosts, immunology, disease epidemiology and ecology. This led me to embark on my MSc thesis, which focused on the Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD) schistosomiasis. During my research project I investigated how the dynamics of transmission hot-spots in Zanzibar are closely related to environmental factors. Fresh water environments have a direct impact on the snail intermediate hosts and also definitive host behaviour, which both influence transmission.


Kinole searching for snails in Zanzibar responsible for transmitting urogenital schistosomiasis

Kinole searching for snails in Zanzibar responsible for transmitting urogenital schistosomiasis


My project formed a component of the Schistosomiasis Consortium for Operational Research and Evaluation (SCORE) ( Zanzibar Elimination of Schistosomiasis Transmission (ZEST) program and I worked closely with the schistosomiasis researchers at the Natural History Museum (NHM). I spent two months carrying out field research in Zanzibar, where I was able to see first-hand the disease in its natural endemic setting. The opportunity to carry out field-work for a School-based project was of huge benefit to me, as it accentuated my desire to continue with field-based research and has therefore shaped many of the decisions I have made in the past few months.

Tom and Mtumweni finding a groupof Bulinus globosus snails on a lily leaf at a schistosomiasis transmission hot-spot in Zanzibar

Tom and Mtumweni finding a groupof Bulinus globosus snails on a lily leaf at a schistosomiasis transmission hot-spot in Zanzibar


On completion of my MSc, funding was secured to allow me to continue working as a research assistant within the schistosomiasis group at the NHM. I am primarily working on the SCORE population genetic projects, however I am also assisting on a wide range of ongoing projects within the schistosomiasis group, but also the rest of the Parasites and Vectors division at NHM.

To expand a little on my current work at the NHM, I am using molecular tools to study schistosome population genetics and molecular epidemiology across several countries in sub-Saharan Africa (Niger, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Madagascar). My main research is investigating how different schistosome populations respond to different control strategies, with an aim to develop more effective control programmes. The genetic structure of schistosome populations is observed using molecular markers such as microsatellites on larval schistosomes collected during parasitological surveys held annually in Niger, Tanzania and Zanzibar.

It is of particular interest to see if contrasting control regimes, for example annual mass drug administration (MDA) or biannual MDA, are affecting schistosome population dynamics and assessing what impact and repercussions these changes may have on future control efforts. Since its introduction in the 1970s, Praziquantel has become the choice treatment for human schistosomiasis, however little is known of the drug’s mechanism and there are growing concerns of chemotherapy resistance after it has been used sporadically in many endemic settings for over 30 years. This highlights the importance of tracking population genetics in areas of high drug pressure that may be at the highest risk of developing resistant schistosome groups.

I am also exploring the hybridisation between human and bovine schistosomes, which directly influences human health due to zoonotic transmission and reservoir hosts. There is a lot of interest, particularly in infectious disease research, in this area of ‘One Health’ for humans and animals, as it seems more apparent that infectious diseases are less-host specific than originally hypothesized. This again could have huge ramifications on control strategies as it will most certainly change the transmission dynamics of the disease if it becomes more profound.

Children playing Kichocho (schistosomiasis) safe games at a School in Zanzibar

Children playing Kichocho (schistosomiasis) safe games at a school in Zanzibar


My future plans have taken a few twists and turns in the last few months, but they ultimately all seem to point towards undertaking a PhD in the near future. My initial plan while studying at the School was to go into a PhD programme straight after the course, as I have been in a continuous ‘stream’ of education since nursery and I wasn’t too sure what happened outside of educational science. All of a sudden I was nearing the end of my course and realised I hadn’t actually looked at any PhD opportunities and didn’t really know where to start, due to my slight lack of direction caused by my broad interests. It was at this point that I decided to ‘think about it’.

Although my current work is still academic at times, it has been a joy to climb out of that stream and take a step back from certain aspects of education and studying. This has not only allowed me to experience day-to-day life as a researcher, but has also given me the time to learn and develop by myself, usually by exploring areas I find continuously fascinating. Not only have I found new interests in doing this, but I have also expanded my skillset as a scientific researcher in the process, making me feel ready more than ever to make that important decision of undertaking a PhD and really start to ‘think about it’. What I am basically trying to conclude from this is: don’t be afraid to take a step in what may seem a different direction, as it may inevitably help you make better-informed decisions based on the direction you initially planned to travel down.

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