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OurStory: Doctorate students marry math and biology to fight disease
Two ASU graduate students and Innovation Challenge finalists are working on innovative measures to help combat a disease ravaging South America, combining the fields of molecular biology and advanced mathematics in hopes of saving lives through their new project.
Susan Anthoanet Holechek- Graduate Student Molecular & Cellular Biology, Ph.D. College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
I am the first in my family to attend graduate school. Since an early age I have been interested in molecular biology, and after finishing my undergraduate degree in Biology at Universidad Nacional Federico Villarreal in Lima, Peru, I took a position at the Peruvian National Institute of Health. It was there that I began my studies on the genetic polymorphism of dengue, a mosquito-borne viral disease. This research became part of my thesis and gave me the opportunity to work with the dengue mutltidisciplinary group at the National Institute of Health.
One of the greatest experiences in my life has been to be a part of the response team during the first major dengue outbreak. I was directly involved with the molecular diagnosis of this disease and was able to travel and see first-hand what dengue could do to a country if it did not have a prevention plan in place. There is no vaccine for dengue and no specific medical treatments. Symptoms range from mild fever to severe muscle and joint pain, hemorrhaging and collapsed blood vessels that can lead to death. It is also called breakbone fever because the pain can be so severe it feels like your bones are breaking.
Historically, 25 percent of these severe dengue cases are in children under 15 years old. Two fifths of the global population is at risk of dengue and while the disease has been restricted to tropical and sub-tropical areas, both the virus and the mosquitoes responsible for dengue have shown an increasing ability to adapt to colder climates. There is a pressing need to find an innovative solution to a problem that has the potential to impact the lives of billions of people. Neither the mosquito nor the virus respect national boundaries or socio-economic status.
Although my current research focuses on vaccinia virus in Dr. Bertram Jacobs' lab at the Biodesign Institute, the memory of witnessing more than 28,000 cases of dengue fever, hundreds of patients with dengue hemorrhagic fever and fatal cases, including a six year old girl, has kept dengue on my mind. A year ago I had the opportunity to meet David Murillo in the Faculty Doctoral Mentoring Institute organized by MGE@MSA, where I learned that his work entails the mathematical modeling of infectious diseases, particularly dengue. I suggested we should collaborate,and that is how the Dengue Intervention team was born.
David Le Minh Murillo- Graduate student Applied Mathematics for the Life and Social Sciences, Ph.D. College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
I am a first generation college graduate and the first to pursue a doctorate. Both of my parents immigrated to the United States, from different ends of the globe, seeking a better life. I have carried this commitment to improve the lives of myself, my family and the community. I studied engineering at Cornell because I thought that was the best way to have an impact. It was there that I met my future mentor Dr. Carlos Castillo-Chavez. He convinced me to attend his summer research program (the Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute, MTBI). It was there that I learned I could have a deeper and broader impact with a doctorate.
It was at MTBI that I first learned about a curious disease called dengue. We have the unique opportunity to study dengue in an endemic area (Piura, Peru) where we have the political support of our team member, EdwarPozo, Director of Epidemiology. Our project has three main components: (1) build social capital and educate high-risk communities; (2) collect mosquitoes and analyze their exposure to the virus; and (3) build a reliable forecast model to help health official prevent future outbreaks. I started the student chapter of SIAM (the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics) to do some outreach activities, but I wanted to do more. Then I got an incredible opportunity to participate in the IGERT in Urban Ecology (Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship).
I learned a great deal about working in interdisciplinary teams (also a focus of MTBI), and many of the students had a commitment to, and experience with, community engagement. The experiences I got from both the MTBI and IGERT programs, and more importantly from the interactions with the other participants, fundamentally changed my view of myself as a researcher and how I could contribute to both the scientific community and my local community. I feel like I was set on a path: I knew I wanted to make a difference, I received some tools and ideas of how I could make a difference, now I just needed the right opportunity.
I also had the opportunity to attend the MGE@MSA (More Graduate Education at Mountain States Alliance) Faculty Doctoral Mentoring Institutes where I met my future collaborator Susan Holechek. Our interest in entrepreneurship began as our individual drive to improve the lives of other people. It hasn’t been easy finding the resources or expertise to carry out our goals, but our network of diverse affiliations has been an invaluable asset in starting our entrepreneurial endeavor.
Submitted by Susan Holechek and David Murillo