Advancements in research and healthcare have led to great strides in the fight against disease and illness. However, it is important that these benefits are not limited to certain privileged groups, but are made available to all members of society.
The increasing prevalence of diseases worsened by environmental factors including global warming and pollution, such as dengue virus, highlights this issue. Environmental concerns affect marginalized communities in a disproportionate way, and it is crucial that we take an inclusive and equitable approach to medical research. This means not only providing marginalized communities with access to the latest research and medical advancements, but also considering the specific cultural and societal factors that affect these communities.
Failure to do so will not only continue healthcare disparities but also weaken the overall effectiveness of public health efforts.
Technical Research Skills & Community-Centered Perspectives
Last summer, I was honored to participate in the Stanford-HBMC student mentorship program, which allowed me to work with the LaBeaud Lab. While I gained invaluable technical skills in research, I also came to appreciate the paramount importance of centering communities’ needs and perspectives in the research process.
Upon arriving in Palo Alto, I was immediately struck by the lab’s focus on connecting science with humanity and understanding the impact of environmental factors on human health. This resonated with me deeply.
I worked on a research project investigating asymptomatic dengue virus. Dengue virus is a mosquito-borne illness that affects an estimated 390 million people worldwide. It is characterized by a range of symptoms, from mild fever to severe and potentially fatal complications. However, dengue can also be transmitted by individuals who do not exhibit any symptoms, a phenomenon known as asymptomatic transmission.
Approximately three-quarters of dengue infections are asymptomatic. Studying asymptomatic transmission is therefore crucial for understanding the overall transmission patterns of the virus and developing effective control strategies. However, there is a small window of time to detect asymptomatic dengue, as the virus is only present in the blood for five to seven days. Asymptomatic dengue is not well understood due to how complex and resource-intensive it is to research, and due to the limited research funding dengue virus–which primarily affects developing countries–compared to diseases that affect developed countries.
Finding a Needle in a Haystack
My project explored asymptomatic dengue transmission among rural and urban populations in western and coastal Kenya. In the lab, I used RNA extraction and RT-qPCR techniques to test serum samples from a cohort of asymptomatic children (ages 3 to 16 years old) from four different Kenyan sites. I tested 1,769 samples, pooled in batches of nine, and I was able to isolate one positive, asymptomatic dengue case. Given the virus’s short detection window, this result was like finding a needle in a haystack.
The data showed that asymptomatic infection in coastal Kenya is not captured by the traditional surveillance methods. It also showed a cost-effective method of pooling and testing to detect asymptomatic infection in low-prevalence populations.
The entire lab team provided incredible support and taught me a variety of lab techniques. I learned and applied various lab procedures, which not only expanded my laboratory skills but also taught me the importance of precision and attention to detail in the lab. The experience reinforced the importance of careful planning, thorough execution, and critical thinking in the pursuit of scientific discovery.
I also found the experience to be meditative and relaxing. The repetitive nature of lab work and the focus on the task at hand helped me to clear my mind and focus on the present moment.
Studying Viruses from Multiple Angles
My mentor, Desiree LaBeaud, MD, was extremely supportive and provided valuable guidance throughout my project. Dr. LaBeaud’s research focuses on arboviruses (e.g. dengue, chikungunya, and Rift Valley fever viruses), and approaches the study of viruses from multiple angles.
Dr. LaBeaud is committed to understanding the mechanisms of the disease, developing effective vector control strategies, and participating in plastic clean-up efforts to combat the spread of the virus.
Dr. LaBeaud’s passion for her work was contagious, and it motivated me to work harder and strive for excellence in my own research. She was always available to answer any questions I had and provided valuable guidance throughout my project. Her mentorship gave me a glimpse into applying cutting-edge medicine and science the right way: Putting the community first.
I am extremely grateful for this Stanford-HBMC Student Mentorship Program opportunity. I was struck by the level of support provided by the university for its researchers. Although my program has ended, I keep in touch with the lab and our collaborative efforts continue to build upon the project.
Working with leading experts in the field of infectious disease epidemiology was an incredibly valuable experience. My time with the LaBeaud Lab was truly transformative and has reinforced my commitment to global health and epidemiology.