Hello, science enthusiasts! I am a Professor and Showalter Scholar at the Indiana University School of Medicine, where I study a protozoan (single-celled) parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. You may have heard about this fascinating “cat parasite” before – in addition to causing birth defects, and opportunistic infection in HIV/AIDS patients, the infection has been linked to neurological disorders such as schizophrenia and epilepsy. Amazingly, one third of the world is permanently infected with Toxoplasma, which is transmitted by cats or contaminated food/water. The parasite is presently incurable because it forms latent tissue cysts in the body, including the brain, that are not eliminated by our current drugs or the immune response. Since Toxoplasma camps out in the brain, a great deal of research has examined whether the infection alters host behavior. Remarkably, infected rodents lose their fear of cats and become sexually attracted to the smell of cat urine. This radical change in behavior transforms the infected rodent into an easy snack for the feline. From an evolutionary perspective, this is genius on the part of the parasite since it needs the cat to breed. But since Toxoplasma resides in the brains of billions of people, how might it be changing human behavior? I’ll be tweeting about Toxoplasma and other fascinating parasites that will make you think twice about the concept of free will!
You can learn more about Toxoplasma by reading, “Played by a Parasite”, a recent article we wrote for Scientific American. More information about my laboratory and our research can be found at our lab web site, www.sullivanlab.com.
I am also an advocate of science outreach and co-founded a popular science blog called THE ‘SCOPE in July 2014. The mission of THE ‘SCOPE is to use pop culture news and events as a springboard to discuss related topics in science. I have also written several articles for ASBMB Today, The Guardian, and The Posdoc Way, which contain career advice for young scientists – go here for a full list of my publications.