Microscopic Monsters and More at the Bay Area Science Festival

These schistosomes are parasitic flatworms that can penetrate human skin and travel through the blood capillaries. They cause serious infections known as schistosomiasis.

Judy Sakanari’s lab receives and studies over a thousand worms a week. These aren’t your garden-variety slimers: her lab studies nematodes, flatworms and other parasites that cause debilitating diseases around the world. Some are so tiny you need a microscope to see them; they can enter human skin and worm their way into the brain.

Sakanari, PhD, is opening her lab for a public tour as a part of the Bay Area Science Festival (BASF) on Sunday Oct. 26 at 2:00 p.m. The parasite lab tour is first come, first served, and it’s limited to 20 people total. It’s one of many free tours offered as a part of the festival’s Explorer Days.  

The ten-day festival runs from Oct. 23 to Nov. 1 and includes over 50 events for families, adults and children, ranging from science storytelling competitions to concerts to interactive tours with scientists to lectures on current topics. This year marks the 4th annual Bay Area Science Festival, which was created by the Bay Area’s scientific, cultural, and educational institutions, including Science & Health Education Partnership (SEP) at UCSF.

Check out More BASF events

Some of the Creatures on Display

In a cramped, windowless room with a biohazard sign on the door, Sakanari pulls out a petri dish containing several reddish snails. These inconspicuous creatures are the host for part of a life cycle for the parasite Schistosoma, which causes Katayama fever and can lead to liver damage, kidney failure, and more.

After Sakanari warms the snails under a lamp to mimic sunshine, soon microscopic, wriggling larvae scoot across the water.

“This is one that causes over 200 million infections worldwide, so it’s a very prevalent infection and causes chronic disability,” said Sakanari. "For a lot of parasitic infections, the infection may not be fatal right away, but the parasite can cause chronic disease that makes people disabled for many years."   

Anjan Debnath's son, Anjishnu, checks out some parasites in Sakanari's lab.

Visitors to the lab can peer through the microscope to check out the wriggling larvae. Sakanari shows how the tiny parasitic larvae have evolved to seek out human hosts: she smudges a tiny bit of oil from her finger into a dish, then adds the water with larvae. They squirm over to the invisible smudge, seeking out the human lipids like a missile. 

Searching for Treatments

Next stop in the lab tour: the Worminator. This nondescript black box is helping the scientists to test the effectiveness of different drugs on various worms, including onchocerca worms that live in black flies and cause River Blindness. This disease can cause intense itching, rashes, eye lesions, and ultimately can progress to blindness. The lab is also testing drugs on Brugia worms, which are transmitted by mosquitoes and cause elephantiasis, a painful disease that can cause enlargement of the legs and arms.

Sakanari’s lab tech Christina Bulman pulls out a plastic case with rows of circular wells, each containing a long slippery worm not much fatter than a human hair. She places the case inside the Worminator, and then an image of the squirming worms shows on the computer screen. Using software written by Sakanari's former student, Chris Marcellino, the Worminator actually measures the speed of the worms’ movement, allowing researchers to test how effective various drugs are at slowing or killing the disease-causing worms.

Visitors to the parasite lab can see these and other microscopic monsters on the hour-long tour on Sunday. Adults and supervised children are welcome on the lab tour.

Packed with family, child and adult events, the Bay Area Science Festival runs from Oct. 23 to Nov. 1.  

Some BASF Highlights

  • BAHFEST – Festival of Bad Hypotheses
    Oct. 25 @ 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm | $20 Orchestra/$10 Balcony
    The Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses (BAH!) is a celebration of well-argued and thoroughly researched but completely incorrect evolutionary theory. Six brave speakers will present their bad theories in front of a live audience and a panel of judges with real science credentials, who will determine which speaker takes home the coveted sculpture of Darwin shrugging skeptically.
  • Boy on Ice: Concussions and Sports
    Oct. 28 @ 6:00 to 7:30 p.m. | Free
    A panel will discuss the decline of famed hockey player Derek Boogaard, who suffered from multiple concussions leading to mental health issues, and ultimately met an early death.  Panelists include John Branch, a sports reporter for The New York Times and Joel Kramer, Director of the Memory and Aging Center at UCSF. They'll discuss the current science behind the systemic brutality of contact sports—from peewees to professionals—and how the damage reaches far beyond the game and does so more quickly and at younger ages than has ever been suspected. 
  • Three Minute Thesis
    Oct. 29 @ 4:00 pm - 6:00 pm | Free
    Watch as nine UCSF finalists compete to share their dissertation research in an entertaining and compelling way in just three minutes. The graduate students will present in front of the judges and a live audience. And there’s money on the line: The winner of the competition will be awarded a $3,000 cash prize.   
  • Discovery Days at AT&T Park
    Nov. 1 @ 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. | Free
    AT&T park is transformed into a science wonderland for the concluding event of the Bay Area Science Festival – a free science extravaganza chock-full of more than 150 interactive exhibits, experiments, games, and shows, all meant to entertain and inspire.

To see more events from the science-packed festival, check out http://www.bayareascience.org. 

For more internal-facing stories from the UCSF community, please visit Pulse of UCSF.