I have a tea stain on my lab coat, the microscope light bulb just burned out, a delivery of sample bottles just arrived, and the printer beeps with a paper jam. I have six skin samples awaiting my inspection, fourteen emails in my inbox, and, of course, the telephone rings. This is part of my normal day. I'm a psychologist who works in the entomology department of the University of Georgia (UGA). Pulling off my latex gloves, I pick up the telephone. "Entomology Department. This is Sarah Bione. How can I help you?"
"Hi, Sarah, this is Joanne. I've got bugs everywhere, but no one will listen to me...."
What do bugs and psychology have to do with one another? A condition called Delusory Parasitosis (DP) is a false, unshakable belief that tiny organisms are living in or on the skin or inside the body (Hinkle, 2000). People with this condition contact entomologists, pest control companies, and physicians seeking relief for the biting and itching sensations they experience. And that's where psychology steps in.
"...I have itching and crawling all over, like something is burrowing into my skin..." continues Joanne.
Last March, I was a senior preparing to graduate. I was working part-time taking catalog orders over the phone. I had been accepted to graduate school in Los Angeles, but I deferred a year. I applied to be a social worker during this time, but I had not yet received any calls. Not only was I getting antsy, my parents were on my case. A few weeks earlier I had been to a Psi Chi meeting where I overheard a professor saying to someone that a year out of the field of psychology could do more harm than good. I started to panic.
"...My husband says he isn't having any symptoms, but I see them on his body..."
That night I received an email from a former professor-turned friend. It was a forwarded message about a part-time job opening from a psychology department listserv. "I know how much you hate your job--why don't you give this a try?" she encouraged. For a second, an image of the smoky, dim-lit, dismal room where I took catalogue orders seized my brain. I shook it off, hit "reply" and requested an interview. "...They're everywhere: in the bed, the couch, the carpet, the freezer, the car..."
The job description was for a research assistant to study the demographics, sensations, management behaviors, medical conditions, prescription medications, and epidemiology of people with DP symptoms. The problem was I had never heard of this condition. I went to the library for an afternoon of literature review and discovered that most psychologists don't know about this condition. People with DP do not feel mentally ill and do not contact a psychologist. They, as I mentioned before, turn to entomologists or pest control companies, or medical practitioners seeking someone to indulge their delusion and identify their "bugs." "...I think it might be fleas, I first noticed red bumps when I petted the neighbor's dogs..."
The interview was the next day. Armed with all the winning interview skills I could muster and a resume nitpicked to perfection from a recent Psi Chi meeting, I met with Dr. Nancy Hinkle. Her door had a poster of an enormous flea and the caption, "Pest of the Week." For a moment I considered pretending that I had knocked on the wrong door, but it was too late. We sat down and discussed the research aims and what she needed in terms of time, commitment, and performance for a research assistant. Luckily, I had taken the advice of Psi Chi and padded my resume with two and a half years of research assistant experience, which seemed to ring her bell. After an hour, she was showing me to my new lab and giving me the keys.
"...I've been to four dermatologists and they all think I'm crazy and won't even look at my skin..."
I never expected to work in another science besides psychology. Before now, I almost felt that the required two four-credit biology classes and two earth science classes were a waste of time. Now I'm eating my words. Those science classes paid off! Not only does my experience in a little-known field show how psychology is applicable to many different sciences, it also demonstrates the importance of a broad educational base. "...This started nearly eight months ago, in the dead of winter..."
My job is this: design and implement research and analyze and publish information regarding Delusory Parasitosis and suspect parasitic infestations. I do this at my desk, which is really just a section of laboratory countertop. My tools are a phone, an answering machine, files, a microscope, and a computer. I share the lab with four cheerful entomology students who work on "real" bugs. They are teaching me a lot about entomology; I can safely say I know more about flea feces than any other psychologist I know. In turn, when they talk about my "crazy bug people," I have an opportunity to pass along the information and terminology that I gained from four years of Psi Chi educational programs. "...I just can't get rid of them! I've tried vacuuming, foggers, bleach, powders...."
Research into the condition of DP requires interdisciplinary cooperation because it encompasses two branches of science that are usually entirely separate. As my days in the entomology department grew into weeks, I realized how much time an entomologist spends talking to people who mistake their creepy crawly sensations for insects. Fortunately for me, the UGA entomology staff also noticed, and two weeks before graduation they offered me a full time job.
"...I spend nearly six hours a day trying to keep these critters at bay..."
There are no typical days at my job, but generally I talk on the phone or exchange emails with people who are experiencing "invisible bugs." I help them consider alternative explanations for why they feel they have bugs on their skin. When people who feel that they are experiencing parasites or bugs send in skin samples, I examine those samples under a microscope and then talk to those people on the phone. Sometimes I talk on the phone up to seven hours a day. I write research papers regarding the different aspects of DP, including its correlation with age, gender, polypharmacy, and social isolation. One of the perks is, because entomology is a field science, I can wear jeans, comfortable shoes, and a lab coat. "...Sometimes they look like little black specks, but sometimes I can't even see them..."
The job has taken me places I would never have imagined. I recently spoke to the National Pest Management Association's convention in Nashville, Tennessee, to an audience of over 300 pest control operators and businessmen. I gave them information about DP and its implications for the pest management business. It seemed like every pest control technician (that's shop-talk for the people who apply pesticides in your house) knew about DP. Twenty people came up to me to share stories and ask questions. In contrast, I constantly have to define the condition for my peers and professors in psychology. This illustrates the need for psychologists in interdisciplinary fields to raise awareness of little-known conditions. "...I'm so frustrated, I feel like you're my last hope. Can you help me?"
A friendly professor, email listservs, Psi Chi networking, research experience, and most important, taking a risk, can open new doors for psychology job opportunities. I stumbled into a field that is nearly invisible to mainstream psychology and am one of the very few people in the world generating data and research on the little-known condition of DP. Research opportunities in interdisciplinary fields have amazing potential for collaboration between sciences that were once completely unrelated. Such collaboration offers exciting opportunities to develop new information about previously unappreciated mental health conditions.
And now, back to the phone. "Hi Joanne. Let's see if we can work this out." Reference
Hinkle, N.C. (2000). Delusory Parasitosis. American Entomologist, 46,
17-25. Sarah E.D. Bione
is a full-time research assistant in the Department of Entomology at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia. She grew up near Chicago, Illinois, and her family now lives near Atlanta, Georgia. She has a BS in psychology from the University of Georgia. She received the HOPE academic scholarship and was an International Scholar during the spring 2004 semester at St. Andrews University in Scotland. She graduated cum laude in May 2005. Her scholastic interests include behavioral neuroendocrinology and psychopathology. She will begin a PsyD program in the fall of 2006 at Alliant International University and plans to become a rehabilitation therapist for perpetrators of sexual violence. She enjoys volunteering at a local children's theater, knitting, dancing, her pet fish, and playing the fiddle.