Debugged: Parasitology in Popular Culture
Mouthparts that not only slice skin apart, but also slurp blood; body armour that in comparison makes a tank look like a soap bubble and body snatchers that take over the control of their hosts – the world of parasites is full of weird and wonderful adaptations. Hence, it is of no surprise that parasites continuously inspire the story telling in popular culture. The seemingly sudden appearance of parasites (due to complex life cycles), the devastating effect they have on their hosts and their unusual morphology (the result of efficient adaptation to their host’s lifestyle) make it easy to brand them as evil and dangerous entities that are sabotaging life. No wonder, the major narrative around parasites and parasitology in popular culture explores them, primarily, as metaphors for the threat and spread of parasitic diseases, or features parasites that infiltrate human bodies, thus transforming them into monsters, to ultimately destroy us (e.g. in the Prometheus and Alien sagas).
However, there is an emerging scientific, parasitological discourse exploring the many positive aspects of parasites. Some estimate that close to half (if not more) of all living species have adopted a parasitic lifestyle (Dobson et al. 2008). Further studies shed new light on parasites by drawing attention to their importance in the stability of ecosystems (Combes 1996), their contribution to biodiversity (Carlson et al. 2017) or their role as agents that ensure the proper maturation and functioning of the human immune system (Tyagi et al. 2015). A better understanding of parasites has significantly increased our appreciation of them and has extended the exploitation of parasites beyond the traditional use of leeches for their anti-coagulant effect: hookworms, for example, are now being investigated for their potential to treat autoimmune or inflammatory conditions like coeliac disease (Wangchuk et al. 2019), and parasitoid wasps are used in sustainable agriculture to fight aphids (Bianchi et al. 2006). Parasites are now accepted as stabilisers of ecosystems and drivers of evolution and biodiversity. They have been shown to be instrumental in explaining why animals and plants have sex and why most organisms have defined lifespans. The study of host-parasite interactions can unravel important biological principles, and parasites themselves represent a treasure trove for biological compounds to fight diseases (e.g. blood clotting inhibitors from leeches). Parasites are not a ‘freakshow of nature’, but a stable and necessary fibre in the fabric of life (for more details, see Jürgens/Maier 2020).
It is therefore time to revisit the cultural meanings of parasites and the science that deals with them, and to put the representation of parasitology and the portrayal of parasites in popular culture – beyond their depiction as evil and threatening – in a more nuanced and contemporary light.
Popular cultural products – including fictional films and narratives, comic book stories and popular theatre – are vehicles for science communication: they reflect ideas about science and “construct perceptions for both the public and scientists in a mutual shaping of science and culture” (Kirby 2008, 44). Or, more precisely: “Several studies of science popularization demonstrate that its cultural meanings, and not its knowledge, may be the most significant element contributing to public attitudes toward science” / “Popular images of science can significantly influence public attitudes toward it by shaping, cultivating, or reinforcing these ‘cultural meanings’ of science.” (Kirby 2017, 11). Popular images of science are created and propagated in popular entertainment (e.g. circus, see Jürgens 2020) and popular media (e.g. film, Kirby 2014). Science in film, for example, can thus prompt us to “move beyond simplistic notions of science as merely a collection of facts in a textbook and to consider science as a larger cultural institution” (Davies et al 2019, 8).
Against this background, this project will explore the cultural meanings of parasites and parasitology in different media since the late 19th century (when parasitology emerged as a discipline). It will thoroughly review the literature published around the ‘parasite in culture’ theme, including stereotypical depictions of parasitologists, and discover and closely analyse nonthreatening parasite portrayals (through case studies, using a mixed method qualitative approach – close reading, content analysis, comparative analysis, etc.). The project will explore (among other questions): What kind of cultural work does the parasite do in nonthreatening cultural contexts (flea circuses, for example)? What parasites, and based on what characteristics, have produced nonthreatening and comic cultural fantasies? What do camp and clown-parasites look like? What can we learn from comic parasites and parasitologists, whether funny or not, about science? What does comic performance offer in understanding cultural ideas and public images of parasitology?
By focusing on role of humour and comic performance in shaping the cultural representation – or cultural meanings – of the parasitologist character and their associated scientific domain, this project directly responds to the fact that cultural narratives about laughter and comedy have been barely discussed in science communication and related fields, despite a growing interest in humorous public science events, science stand-up routines or science-based sitcoms (see Riesch, 2015). More so, this project has the potential to make a difference to the discipline itself, not just by producing new knowledge, insights and deeper understanding, but also because it can help develop a more nuanced, contemporary understanding of what parasitology is in culture (and what ‘parasitological storytelling’ may be defined).
Admission to a Doctor of Philosophy degree at ANU requires:
- An Australian Bachelor degree with at least Second Class or its international equivalent, or
- Another degree with a significant research/thesis component that may be assessed as equivalent to paragraph (1), or
- A combination of qualifications, research publications and/or professional experience related to the field of study that may be assessed as equivalent to paragraph (1).
Further information relating to eligibility can be found on the ANUs website: http://www.anu.edu.au/study/apply/anu-postgraduate-research-domestic-and-international-applications
The successful applicant will have a passion for science in popular culture, particularly parasitology, and for interdisciplinary research – because this project will require bridging the humanities (studying fictional texts, popular entertainment and popular media (such as films and comics) etc), science communication (exploring the representation and cultural meanings of a science discipline in popular culture) and sciences (parasitology). They will have a background in a relevant discipline (ideally parasitology or biology, or, alternatively, science communication or literary/cultural studies) and an advanced awareness/knowledge of humanities research methods. They will also possess strong interpersonal skills, curiosity, strong writing skills, and be able to work effectively as part of a small interdisciplinary team and also independently. If the applicant has a background in the humanities, a very strong commitment to understanding and working with scientific concepts (parasitology) is expected.
Dr Anna-Sophie Jürgens, Popular Entertainment Studies, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, ANU
Prof Alexander Maier, Molecular Parasitology, Research School of Biology, ANU
The successful applicant with be based in the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science (CPAS) at the ANU. Scholarships are available for both domestic and international applicants, and CPAS will work with the successful applicant to guide them through the scholarship process.
To be considered for this position, in the first instance please forward a current CV (2-page max.) and short cover letter (1-page max.) to Dr Anna-Sophie Jürgens (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Prof Alexander Maier (email@example.com). In the cover letter, be sure to let us know why you are the perfect candidate based on the skills outlined above. Shortlisted candidates will then be invited to Zoom to discuss their applications further.
Applications will be assessed on a rolling basis as they are received, and this position will remain open until filled.
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