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SMC professor names parasite after Obama

| Wednesday, September 14, 2016

In 2008, retired Saint Mary’s biology professor Thomas Platt was granted a two month sabbatical from the College. He used that period of time, between January and March, to study parasites in Malaysia. That’s where he discovered the parasite he named Baracktrema obamai after President Barack Obama.

Platt stayed and conducted his research at Universiti Putra in Malaysia, where he spent his time dissecting turtles. Platt said he has devoted the bulk of his life to studying the parasites of turtles, and this is where he made his now-famous discovery.

“During the course of those dissections, I found what I was absolutely certain was a new species,” Platt said. “And I knew that as soon as I saw it.”

The new species of parasite was found in the circulatory system of the lungs of turtles. The parasite is measured to be two inches long and thinner than a stand of hair. The parasite was found in two species of turtles: the Black Marsh turtle and the Asian Box turtle.

Platt said as a taxonomist, it is his job is to discover, name and categorize species for other scientists can use them in research. He said his goal is simply to increase human awareness of what is living on Earth.

“What I’m attempting to do is add to our knowledge of diversity on the planet,” Platt said. “If somebody then utilizes the information that I find for other means that is fine by me.”

Recently, Platt found out through one of his cousins that Obama is a distant cousin of his; the two share a common ancestor — a man named George Frederick Toot who lived in  Middletown, Pa., from 1759 to 1815.  

Platt said despite what one may think, he considers it an honor to have a parasite named after you. He has had two parasites named after himself as recognition for his work. By naming this parasite after Obama, Platt said he intends to honor his distant family member.

“I voted for Obama twice, I think he had done a fine job. I have a great deal of respect for him as a husband and father,” Platt said. “From my perspective, I am recognizing his achievements.”

Platt, who retired in 2015, said he is happy this story is getting global attention. He said with the hard work he has done over the course of his career — especially on this eight-and-a-half-year project — and the hard work all other scientists do, expecting nothing in return, it is nice to receive some recognition and feedback.

“I wanted the last organism that I’m going to name in my career to make a little noise,” Platt said.

He said the story, which started to gain media attention a week ago, has already began to raise awareness of parasitology.  For example, Platt added, the journal of parasitology website recently received ten times more hits then it usually does.

“There are a lot of scientist out there who don’t do it for money or recognition but because they love it,” he said. “We are really just interested in discovering diversity on this planet.”

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