When most students return from study abroad, they might have a few souvenirs in their suitcase — objects that remind them of the land and culture where they lived for several months.

Mark Massaro, ’14, came home from his semester in South Africa with a carry-on bag of fleas and ticks.

While most would be quick to call them an unwelcome infestation, Massaro had actually spent five days carefully collecting them from rodents in a South Africa national park (don’t worry—they were killed and preserved for transport). He’s studying the fleas and ticks for the presence of different types of Bartonella, a human and veterinary pathogen that’s become an increasing health concern in recent years, partly due to a lack of research.

He chose to study abroad at Duke University’s Organization of Tropical Studies in South Africa in part because of his work with biology professor Jory Brinkerhoff. Massaro first met Brinkerhoff when the professor arrived at Richmond after his freshman year, and the two began studying how likely horses are to contract Lyme disease, information that could be used to determine if horses require diagnosis and treatment, or if a vaccine should be produced. Massaro recently presented their findings at the International Conference on Lyme Borreliosis and Other Tick-Borne Diseases at Harvard Medical School.

Along the way, Massaro says Brinkerhoff has been a supportive force in everything from his research and study abroad to preparing for veterinary school. “He’s my research advisor, he’s my academic advisor,” Massaro says. “I joke that he’s my life advisor.”

Massaro’s African fleas and ticks are a welcome addition to the lab’s collection, which also includes 25,000 fleas from Colorado and an ever-growing collection of Virginia fleas. But the international research story doesn’t end there. This past summer, with the help of a Weinstein Summer Grant, Massaro and Brinkerhoff spent four weeks at the Laboratory of Veterinary Public Health at Nihon University College of Bioresource Sciences in Fujisawa, Japan. The two worked with a team of researchers to learn a new technique for culturing Bartonella directly from the flea, which now allows researchers to conduct two tests for the pathogen on one flea.

The experience in the lab was valuable not only from a technical standpoint. “We can build a relationship with this lab,” Massaro says. “We’re hoping to have them send students to us, we can send students to them, and we can write papers together. We really want it to be a long-term thing.”

As Massaro settles back into his lab in Gottwald Science Center, his experiences in Japanese labs and the wilds of South Africa are providing plenty of fodder as he prepares his applications to veterinary school. He mentions the always available option of joining his parents’ veterinary practice at home in New Jersey, but that he’s now considering new possibilities — wildlife conservation or shelter medicine, for example — thanks to his study abroad.

No matter what path he chooses, it’s sure to include a focus on animals.

“My parents had encouraged me to consider other options than being a vet,” he says. “So I looked into everything. I thought about being a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher. But I’ve always had a knack with animals. Eventually I thought, ‘I’m just kidding myself. This is what I’m meant to do.’”