Header Banner

Tomáš Scholz (foreground) and Anindo Choudhury (Biology) at work at St. Norbert.

Fulbright Brings Czech Parasitologist to Campus

What brought together a biology professor from Canada and a renowned Fulbright scholar from the Czech Republic? The same thing that brings Wisconsinites together on Fridays in supper clubs across the state:

It’s the fish!

Tomáš Scholz is a faculty member and researcher at the Institute of Parasitology, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic. Anindo Choudhury is professor of biology and environmental science at St. Norbert College. The two scholars, who both study parasites in fish, have collaborated for many years. For the past four months, they’ve been able to work together in person right on the Fox River, thanks to Scholz’s fellowship as senior Fulbright scholar. He is visiting St. Norbert until late June. 

Scholz has traveled widely and worked with experts from all over the world: China, South America, Africa, you name it. But he says there is something special about St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin. Three things in particular, actually: the international focus; the safe, beautiful setting; and the science facilities. While at St. Norbert, he has particularly enjoyed the Fox River biking trails and meeting with students – especially those who were studying languages or planning to study abroad. And, “This all happened because we have the facilities to support an internationally renowned scholar like this guy!” Choudhury says with a smile, gesturing at Scholz.

Like ancestry.com ... but for parasites
Scholz and Choudhury’s research examines the genealogy of fish parasites: they combine history and biology, tracking the lineage of particular parasites, and discovering how they developed into their current form. It’s like ancestry.com ... but for parasites. 

The exchange is both scholarly and relational: The two joked together about going “viral” recently. Bringing out a phone, they played a video they recorded of worms in fish intestines: “And in our community, it was shared all around! We went viral!” 

Their workstation presents a mash-up of the old and the new. Next to their high-tech research instruments and smartphones with viral worm videos sit dusty volumes of century-old classical research, printed with hand-drawn diagrams on untrimmed parchment paper in a book from 1914. Scholz still draws his own intricate diagrams. Steady, inked lines and swooping curves make these parasites – often thought of as ugly – look beautiful.

It’s a common misconception that parasites are always nasty, and harmful to the host. Even the word “parasite” itself carries a negative connotation. Says Choudhury: “In the very beginning, in the old days, in fact, there were some authors that used the words ‘host’ and ‘guest.’ So the parasite was the guest. The host was the host. A parasite, to put it quite simply, is any organism that uses another organism both for its habitat – to live – and a source of nutrition.” 

Emerging science reveals that in some cases, a parasite (or guest) may in some ways be beneficial to the host. Scholz says one theory on human gut health supposes that people show an increasing number of illnesses and allergies because they don’t have enough parasites in their system: They are too sterile. Another theory posits that parasitic treatment could be one way to manage Crohn’s disease. 

Scholz and Choudhury’s area of fish parasite biodiversity matters both to the health of ecosystems (think Fox River) and to the health of the people consuming the fish (think Friday Fish Fry.) 

Scholz explains that parasites are a litmus test for a healthy ecosystem, just like a canary in a mine: “There are many studies on water pollution and parasites. If you have a healthy ecosystem, like your Fox River, parasites will be very abundant, many species. But if it is polluted, very few parasites can survive.” He described a river in Romania where gold miners dumped hydrochloric acid. It was an ecological disaster, with few parasites able to survive in that ecosystem.

Of course, it is important to study parasites to benefit human health as well – to understand the parasite in case it does make its way into human hosts or serves as a harmful guest to those who consume it. (But most fish parasites are not harmful to humans, Scholz and Choudhury assure – especially if the fish are cooked.) The researchers have both worked on a massive eight-year international study, funded by the National Science Foundation, that is documenting the biodiversity of every tapeworm around the world: basically the “tapeworm Bible.” Scientists can’t treat people affected by parasites unless they first understand the parasite. 

A symbiotic research relationship
The two collaborative scientists-now-friends work on parasites, but their own research is symbiotic, they say: mutually beneficial. They “met” virtually, doing work with researchers out of South America and Mexico several years ago. Their research community is relatively small, but collaborative. Says Scholz: “In fish parasitology – I’m very lucky and privileged. I met really great, great people. And most of them they are very humble, very polite. They’ve shared experiences with me.” 

Initially, Choudhury shared content that Scholz needed for his research, and later Scholz shared with Choudhury. They published two papers together virtually, but there’s nothing quite like working collaboratively in the same physical space. This shared in-person experience is a highlight of the Fulbright program, which enables international researchers to work together in new and innovative spaces, on collaborations impossible at a distance. For the last four months, Scholz and Choudhury have worked side by side, drawing samples from around the country – including the Fox River, right next to St. Norbert College’s state-of-the-art Gehl-Mulva Science Center. 

Says Scholz: “I wouldn’t have access to this material in my lab [in the Czech Republic.] Theoretically, Anindo could have shipped it to me but it wouldn’t be the same, because now we are sharing an experience … . This is a big advantage. 

“Science is about exchange. Exchange of ideas, exchange of opinions and hypotheses. Sometimes discussing, sometimes disagreeing – which is important in science … . You can’t dominate because of force or power. You have to [work] so that people will accept your arguments. When I came, Anindo had some hypotheses. And I’m a doubting Tomáš! After spending one month of hours and hours with his perfectly fixed specimens, he convinced me.”

Academic freedom
Scholz remembers living in his country while it was still under Communist rule. He says his father was a scholar who could have been an administrator of a research university, but he was not part of the Communist Party and thus could not advance to that level.

Scholz was 29 when the borders opened up. 

“I was born in Socialism. We were closed. It was a concentration camp. Now, we’ve got liberty. We can travel ... . I was looking at Austria [before liberation], I couldn’t even approach. When I could cross the border and nobody killed me: for me it was something that I will never forget.”

Scholz emphasizes a central message for all students: “If it is international, it’s an indication of a good quality. If something is closed, just American, I’d say well … it is nice, but you should open. For us [in Communism], we didn’t have liberty. Now, anybody can travel if they have money. Not all Americans are eager to go outside because you’re a big country – you have almost everything. But it is a very good experience, and I think that every American student should go outside of the U.S.: to Europe, to Latin America. It’s a good message: international exchange. Fulbright is fantastic, because of this ... . My mind about American life has changed a lot. It’s important. Very enriching.”

June 6, 2017