Professor Schmarotzersindwunderbarhausen’s class act
Professor Bruno von Schmarotzersindwunderbarhausen - Professor Alexander Maier's alter ego. Image: Sharyn Wragg Prof Bruno and student Hunting for parasites Professor Bruno von Schmarotzersindwunderbarhausen - Professor Alexander Maier's alter ego. Image: Sharyn Wragg

Professor Bruno von Schmarotzersindwunderbarhausen in his idiosyncratic attire is not something you would see during a regular day on campus. He only appears in the same classes taught by Professor Alexander Maier - his alter ego. 

Professor Maier is a parasitologist at the Research School of Biology who took inspiration for his alter ego from the age-old flea circus entertainment to make lectures more engaging for students. 

"Flea circuses have been around for 200 years and have not lost any of their appeal despite all the high-end tools that are used in entertainment now,"  Professor Maier says. 

"And hence the flea circus is a bit of a metaphor for scientific exploration, where despite a more sophisticated understanding of parasites, the fascination and - sadly - many problems, still exist."

Some students react to his methods with confusion and shock, but Professor Maier observed curiosity in all of his students, which he believes is a pre-requisite for any meaningful learning and scientific endeavour.

"Universities and fundamental research are often accused of being ivory towers, but for me it is the opposite," he says. 

"Knowledge and understanding do not exist in isolation, and all of this is connected across disciplines. 

"As a lecturer, I see it as my job to make these connections obvious.  

"Knowing what you are passionate about, what you enjoy and how you can contribute your talents to such a cause is much more important than the result of a single exam." 

Professor Maier and his alter ego understand that not every course participant will be a parasitologist, but hope they will become ambassadors for the discipline, by sharing the importance of the extraordinary ability that parasites possess with other people. 

"Parasites are regarded as freaks of nature and somewhat pariahs of biology. 

"They influence many of our daily decisions without us even knowing, from the way we produce and prepare food, how we treat diseases, all the way to why we have sex. 

"Just visit the section with anti-parasitic medication the next time you are in a pet store." 

The quirky pair are passionate about pathogenicity of parasites and its molecular basis. Their current work focuses on Plasmodium falciparum, a malarial parasite, seeking to identify and develop new intervention strategies, while also understanding its biological principles.  

Original article: 5 July 2021, ANU Newsroom