How Dr. Bobbi Pritt—the "Parasite Gal"—has made parasites accessible. Interesting. Relatable, even. All while fighting to save you from them.
It’s 10 a.m. on a rainy Tuesday morning in September, and Dr. Bobbi Pritt—the "Parasite Gal" (her term, not ours)—has just posted her 559th straight Parasite of the Week quiz (a pic of a medical slide and a short case study) on her website.
The guesses are already trickling in to the site—called Creepy Dreadful Wonderful Parasites—that gets 25,000 visitors every month. (Spoiler alert, this week’s answer is pinworms.)
On the wall of her small office hangs a Pritt-designed pinup calendar that uses close-up photos to, every month, spotlight a different parasite.
In her dozen years as the director of Mayo’s Clinical Parasitology Laboratory, Dr. Pritt has combined her creative background (she was an art major) and blog with her science side to make parasites accessible. Interesting. Relatable, even.
"Blood flukes," she writes on her blog, "are some of the biggest huggers in the parasite world. When a male worm meets a female worm, they mate for life. The larger male worm stores the smaller female in a long groove in his body, and the female leaves only to lay her eggs. So romantic."
But don’t let the giant stuffed tick on her desk fool you. Dr. Pritt takes her job very seriously.
Because parasitology is a field where, if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.
Here on the fourth floor of Mayo’s Hilton Building, just a short walk across the hall, Dr. Pritt’s lab performs 200,000 tests—mostly specimens placed on glass slides—per year.
These slides—blood and stool samples, spinal fluid and tissues—represent people fighting seizures caused by tapeworm, people hallucinating due to brain-eating amoeba, people comatose due to malaria.
And the patients, for Dr. Pritt, still come first. Even when she’s triple-booked for meetings, even when she’s chairing some committee that reports directly to Health and Human Services, she’ll drop everything when one of her lab techs calls and says, "Can you come into the lab? This patient’s slide does not look right."
If it’s a patient at Mayo, Pritt may walk over to consult with that physician. If it’s an off-site patient, she’ll be on the phone immediately.
"This is life-threatening. What can we do to help?"
A glass jar full of fleas. A container of live ticks. Beetles.
Mayo’s Clinical Parasitology Laboratory receives those 200,000 specimens in various ways. Roughly 20 percent come directly from the Mayo Clinic.
Eighty percent of the samples arrive from other hospitals and labs and doctors, who determine which tests they want performed and then hire Mayo’s lab services.
Many of these samples arrive on the Boeing 757 FedEx flight that lands at 5 a.m, five days a week at Rochester International Airport. Of the 45,000 pounds of daily FedEx freight, the 250 or so daily packages for Mayo Clinic Laboratories are the first things unloaded. Those packages—containing thousands of samples—arrive at Mayo within a half-hour of touchdown.
Of those samples, roughly 500 will be destined for the Parasitology Laboratory.
A blood sample from a patient at a New Jersey hospital who just returned from the Peace Corps in Uganda and has malarial symptoms. A stool sample from a patient at a Wisconsin clinic suffering from stomach cramps. A tapeworm removed from a patient in Brazil.
The lab has received a glass jar full of fleas. A container of live ticks. Beetles.
The lab’s 40 or so techs include specialists who need to be able to quickly determine whether a foreign object in a stool is, say, a piece of onion or a parasitic flatworm. They need to establish the number of parasites in a malaria sample to understand the severity of the disease.
Doctors and patients around the world are waiting for those results. And the number of samples just keep growing.
"We’ve grown as a reference lab," says Dr. Pritt. "We’ve taken on more clients. We’re doing more tests. In clinical microbiology, we’ve hired two additional lab directors since I first started. We now have seven microbiologists here. We’re probably the largest microbiology division in the country."
While the lab itself operates as a Mayo Clinic business, Pritt stresses the patient-first approach.
"We’re a physician-run organization," she says. "We continue to grow because of the expertise we have, the amount of attention we give to customer service, to quality control. Customers know they’re going to get a quality result. The principles that Mayo is built upon are in everything we do. So the needs of the patient come first."
Concerns, compliments, conference calls
Today, Dr. Pritt has already met with top Mayo leaders to share concerns (and compliments) from personnel, sat in on a conference call with the College of American Pathologists, made a few visits to the lab, advised a former student prepping for a big presentation. It’s only 10 a.m.
She’s double-booked for much of the rest of today, with a division communications meeting and a government sub-committee on tick-borne illnesses and some teaching sessions with fellows.
She was up at 6, but, because of the rain, had to forgo her usual morning walk to work in favor of door-to-door dropoff service from her husband, Alex Ball (who drove well out of his way from his marketing manager job at All Craft Exteriors). She’s still nursing her one (and only) cup of coffee for the day.
"I really love my job in that it covers all of the three Mayo shields [patient care, research, and education]," says Dr. Pritt. "Today, I’ve already been responding to emails and questions about patients. I met with my fellow to help him present his research. And I love the education part—to get to work with people and mentor them, coach them. I guess I realized early on that I had a bit of a knack for simplifying things in a way that someone could remember it and learn from it."
While growing up in Vermont, Pritt also realized early on that she really liked biology—"everything from squishy earthworms in the ground to bugs to some of the higher-level biochemical stuff in high school."
But, she says, she wanted to be an artist. She painted. Learned graphic design. Practiced photography. Went to a community college—the first in her family to go to college—and earned her associate’s degree in marketing. Took a job as a graphic designer for a magazine targeted to girls.
Volunteered to do set design for the local theater company in Vermont, where she met her husband, Alex, who was playing an elf in the Christmas show.
When the art started to seem more hobby than career, she went back to school to study biology before eventually heading to medical school at the University of Vermont.
Then Bobbi Pritt discovered parasites.
"I finally saw a way to marry my love of biology with my love of art," she says. "I’m very visually oriented. Parasites are very visual because they’re pretty, they’re little animals really. I mean, they all have their own life cycle. Sometimes they have males and females and they mate and it’s like a little zoology.
"Take giardia [a microscopic parasite that causes diarrhea], which may be living in your intestine. They’re living in their own little metropolis with bacteria and viruses. They’re just one resident on a landscape that to them, looks like a whole world. And it’s in our intestine."
The move to Mayo
In 2008, after a one-year stint as a Mayo Scholar studying in London, Dr. Pritt took over for a retiring parasitologist at Mayo Clinic.
"It was just perfect timing," she says. "Mayo has given so much to me. I’ve been so fortunate. The opportunities I’ve had here, I wouldn’t have been able to get elsewhere."
During her decade at Mayo, Dr. Pritt’s work has resulted in the implementation of rapid and highly sensitive molecular tests for important human infections, including malaria and Lyme disease.
Twice, she played a key role in discovering and describing new tick-borne pathogens. The most recent discovery came in 2016, when one of Pritt’s lab techs flagged an unknown bacterium in a blood sample of a patient with Lyme disease. After more research, Pritt and her Mayo lab colleagues determined that the previously unknown bacterium causes Lyme disease. Pritt’s lab named the bacterium Borrelia mayonii—after the Mayo brothers.
"I love the work we are doing here," says Dr. Pritt. "We’re continuing to develop new tests to find ways to discover diseases. We’re using some of our new molecular technologies where you can take a single type of specimen, like a blood specimen, and detect anything that might be infectious in there. For example, if you get bitten by a tick, that tick can transmit bacteria, viruses, parasites. My next step is to develop a test that could detect all of those with a single specimen. We’re starting to undertake work in my research lab on that."
It’s now nearly 11 a.m., and Dr. Pritt has her government sub-committee meeting for tick-borne diseases with Health and Human Services. And she’s double-booked with that division communication meeting.
Then it’s some research work in the lab, and some mentoring, and, in between, checking those guesses to her Parasite of the Week quiz.
Then, tomorrow at 5 a.m., that Boeing 757 FedEx flight will once again land at the Rochester International Airport.
And it could be carrying, well, anything.