Majoring in Biology and minoring in Chemistry, I graduated from Xavier in 2010 with University Scholars honors. Exploring my musical, athletic and service interests, I joined the Symphonic Winds and Pep Band on my trumpet, and donned cleats with the Club Ultimate Frisbee team. I served as a participant (New Orleans – Hurricane Katrina relief), Site Leader (San Francisco – HIV/AIDS prevention), and Treasurer for Xavier Alternative Breaks. My passion for teaching and mentoring grew through my two years as a tutor and Supplementary Instruction leader at the Learning Assistance Center. My generation saw the last, golden years of the Dorothy Day House and the Honors Villa.
Dr. Jen Robbins’ courses on Virology and Parasitology stimulated my fascination with the connections between micro-level of molecular biology and the macro-level of politics and economics. A campus lecture by global health icon Dr. Paul Farmer (Harvard University), and a guest biology lecture by Dr. Paul Ewald (University of Louisville) further motivated my interest in infectious disease transmission. These milestones propelled my application to the Brueggeman Fellowship.
As a Brueggeman Fellow, I spent two months as a lab member of the Center for Public Health (El Centro Nacional de Salud Pública) in Lima, Peru. A member of the Abrovirus laboratory hosted in me in her home with her family. Each day we commuted on a government-run bus to the brand new, well-equipped laboratory campus in the Chorillos district. Blood samples from patients across the country were sent to this central reference lab to be processed for diagnostic tests. Many infections cause similar fever-based
illnesses, including Dengue virus, Yellow Fever virus, Chikungunya virus, and Malaria (a parasite). Our goal was a differential diagnosis based on reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), immunofluorescence, and enzyme-linked immunosorbant assay (ELISA). Because these diseases are spread by mosquito vectors, our data was also utilized by public health officials to determine the use of resources for mosquito control, such as insecticide spraying.
One key milestone in my summer was a trip to Iquitos, a small city on the Amazon River, accessible only by boat and plane. I visited the clinical outpost and received a tour of their diagnostic laboratory, which was ill-equipped for the local workers to safely handle contagious patient fluid samples, and ill-equipped for running the diagnostic tests. The disparity in resources between the capital and the remote city reinforced in my mind the need for low-cost, point-of-care diagnostics.
During my time in Peru, I enjoyed the companionship of my labmates, lots of fresh food from the open market in the neighborhood, and gained an appreciation for merengue and bachata music. However, the most lasting impact of my travels as a Fellow is my dedication to face challenges in infectious disease prevention, diagnosis, and treatment.
What They're Doing Now
I am currently a PhD candidate in the Virology Program at Harvard University. This 6 – 7 year path has tested my fortitude, but is also rich in rewards. My Brueggeman Fellowship triggered an interest in Dengue virus that led me to join the laboratory of Dr. Lee Gehrke for my thesis work. His wise and patient mentorship supports my projects on innate immune detection of viral RNA. I have also initiated a collaboration to study the impact of Dengue infection on the liver. My colleagues in Boston boast a fierce curiosity and dedication to their work, but also an unexpected collaborative spirit that enlivens the environment.
As another enriching layer to my thesis work, I have contributed to the lab-wide project of designing a point-of-care blood test to diagnose Dengue virus infection. This humble device that fits in the palm of your hand is a multi-year tour de force, combining the expertise of engineers, material scientists, biologists, and computer scientists. While my individual contributions are minimal, I have gained a profound respect for diverse fields that can apply their problem solving techniques to the shared obstacles in medical device design.
My Brueggeman Fellowship was my first immersion in the infectious disease challenges that motivate my work today. Although I have not yet determined my post-PhD career, I hope to continue my service in the arenas of basic science and public health.