Written by Jeffrey Lee, Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program alumnus
I was part of the 2015 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program cohort and placed into the lab of Dr. Herbert “Skip” Virgin, the Edward Mallinckrodt Professor and Chair at the Washington University School of Medicine, working alongside Dr. Robert Orchard to investigate the mysteries of the murine norovirus (MNV).
It’s human counterpart, often called the stomach flu, accounts for a significant amount of morbidity worldwide and presents with a range of symptoms, most noticeably with vomiting and diarrhea. Human norovirus has been hard to grow in lab settings and MNV has become the “go-to” model for studying norovirus. The summer internship sparked my interest in infectious disease and introduced me to the tools and, most importantly, the people working hard to find cures.
After completing the program, I enrolled in the Master of Public Health (MPH) degree at Washington University in St. Louis where I concentrated in Global Health. I had the opportunity to travel to Haiti with Dr. Lora Iannotti, associate professor at the Brown School, to learn about public health systems in the country and the many hardships that Haitians face to this day. There, I worked with Meds and Food for Kids, where we saw firsthand the effects of undernutrition on local populations and the innovative ways people are trying to improve nutrition.
The summer after the first year of my MPH, I continued working in the Virgin Lab, investigating whether MNV disrupts the flow of material into and out of the cell nucleus. While the project didn’t yield definitive and actionable results, the highly independent nature of the project and the hours I spent working, sometimes late into the night, gave me a further appreciation for research. This was when I decided to pursue a doctoral degree after completing my MPH. I just had a few more detours to take before getting there.
After graduating in May of 2017, I went with a dozen students from Washington University to Tanzania under the direction of Dr. Carolyn Lesorogol. There we learned about community participatory assessment and applied many of its tools in activities conducted with local fishing communities. This was an eye opening experience for me because for the first time, I was approaching research with a social work based lens where local viewpoints and attitudes towards diseases and various social issues dominated the conversation. The time spent in Tanzania really helped me to further guide my career interests. I knew I wanted to do something that would directly impact, and improve, the human condition.
Coming back from Tanzania, I dove back into research at the Virgin Lab as well as working with Dr. Petra Levin on microbiology topics, particularly on how nutritional and environmental conditions influence cell division and growth. Now as the summer nears its end and the sweltering heat slightly subsides, I am preparing to enroll in the Energy, Environment, and Chemical Engineering Master of Engineering (MEng) degree here at Washington University, specializing in Bioengineering and Biotechnology. As part of the MEng program, I will be studying and designing genetic circuits to respond to neurotransmitters in the lab of Dr. Tae Seok Moon. The applications of this research are plentiful but the most pertinent would be for the treatment, and even prevention, of post-traumatic stress disorder. I did say there would be a few detours before pursuing a doctoral education right?
Washington University’s MPH has taught me how to look at the world from a wider social lens, taking in my surroundings and appreciating local perspectives, and the MEng will help me develop specific technical experience in addressing topics related to human health and well-being. Traveling to Haiti and Tanzania helped me to see the effects of infectious diseases and undernutrition, making the research I did in various labs come alive. There were no test tubes, no fancy equipment, no mouse models. In front of me I saw the waters where schistosomiasis infected fishermen trying to provide for their families, the housing units where leprosy patients lived, the distended stomachs of children infected with intestinal worms, and the concerned look of mothers sitting by their infants in hospital rooms. I saw why research, along with the development and implementation of real-world solutions is so necessary. Now, more than ever, we need strong evidence-based approaches to addressing a host of issues, from medicine and public health to social justice. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN states that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.” I see myself, and my future career, as playing a small role in this, in improving lives.