Brandywine team talks parasitology at the Huck Center for Malaria Research

MEDIA, Pa. — One Penn State Brandywine faculty member and two of her students spent a weekend discussing a subject that makes some people squirm: parasites.

Assistant Professor of Biology Megan Povelones, along with rising sophomore Ekaterina Iatsenko and rising senior Maddie Malfara, presented at the inaugural Pennsylvania Parasitology Conference (PAraCon) last month.

The conference, which was held at University Park and organized by Scott Lindner and Manuel Llinás of Penn State’s Center for Malaria Research (CMaR), covered a vast array of topics related to parasite research.

“Living in the U.S., we don’t really think about parasites much,” said Povelones. “We’re kind of fortunate in that way. But there are lots of organisms we don’t worry about that are still a major problem in much of the world.”

Although malaria research was front and center in many of the conference presentations, the 80-person event also included research on parasitic worms, trypanosomes, cryptosporidium and the mechanisms of parasite drug resistance.

Povelones presented information about mitochondrial structure and function in Trypanosoma brucei, a single-celled parasite. This particular subject has been a long-term object of study for Povelones, who received a prestigious National Science Foundation grant for her work in 2017.

Her students, Iatsenko and Malfara, presented posters about trypanosome research as well. Both students have assisted Povelones with her research in the last year.

“This conference was definitely the most fun out of all of the meetings I have been to,” Malfara said. “Katya and I got lots of advice on our poster presentations, current projects and even future career paths. Everyone was friendly and wanted us to learn.”

“And the openness of this conference was uplifting,” said Iatsenko. “Sometimes you see researchers in the scientific community try to hold back information they haven’t published yet so that others can’t use it, but at PAraCon, we saw so many people eager to share what they’ve learned and collaborate with each other to spark new ideas.”

Malfara and Iatsenko were among a select few undergraduate presenters at PAraCon.

“They were mistaken for grad students several times,” Povelones said. “It says a lot that your students are not only willing, but excited to attend a conference on a weekend in the summer.”

According to Povelones, one of the conference’s greatest strengths was the diversity of topics, research types and universities represented.

“We heard presenters from Drexel, several Penn State campuses and other universities,” she said. “I always like to see how conferences capture the spectrum of research methods and subjects.”

The work conducted by Povelones and her students is basic research, a form of study that is often more exploratory and less application-minded.

“It’s the difference between exploring something because it’s interesting and exploring because you need a practical solution,” she said. “Both have their places, though. You never know where the next cure or practical advancements are going to come from. Basic science is one end of that pipeline.”

In addition to sharing her research and working with her students, Povelones believes that attending the conference was a good window into the realities of the scientific process — a field that is often glamorized by young learners.

“There are great discoveries in science, but they often take time,” she said. “Students are used to doing labs in class where everything works because everything has been optimized. Most of the time, science is more of a struggle. Things don’t always work.”

In parasitology especially — a scientific field less commonly studied in the U.S. — perseverance and creative researching skills are key.

“Students ask me all the time how parasites do certain things, and when I tell them that we don’t know, they’re shocked,” said Povelones. “But some things, nobody knows yet. That makes research more difficult, but it’s also what makes every breakthrough more rewarding.”