Amanda Elyssa Ruiz, a PhD student at Brown University in the United States, is looking for potential vaccines to protect against schistosomiasis, a disease that impacts over 250 million people every year, making it the second most socio-economically devastating parasitic disease after malaria.
In countries where schistosomiasis is found, water buffalo are the key labor force for wetland rice agriculture, as well as the main way that humans get infected, so finding a vaccine that protects both would be a big step forward.
“My main project is to identify novel vaccine candidates for schistosomiasis using epidemiologic data alongside immunologic and biochemical approaches,” she says, “The Kurtis lab has developed a screening strategy for vaccine candidates which identifies the antigens on the parasite, Schistosoma japonicum.”
In humans, this parasite, part of a group of worms known as the blood flukes, cause a disease that has symptoms including abdominal pain, diarrhea, bloody stool and organ damage.
Ruiz, a first-generation American with parents from Colombia and Guatemala, says her work is unique because it looks to find a vaccine to both the water buffalo and human hosts.
“It seamlessly connects epidemiologic field studies with basic science experiments by identifying individuals that develop a natural resistance to the parasite infection and harnessing their acquired immunity to identify antigens of the parasite that elicit protective immune responses,” she said.
Ruiz says she became increasingly interested in molecular parasitology after realizing that many parasitic diseases are zoonotic, or able to infect both animals and humans
“My interest in studying tropical medicine and infectious diseases also connects to one of my greater motivations – to incorporate social justice into my research and address global health issues that disproportionately impact under-resourced and marginalized communities.”
Ruiz says her research is driven by the One Health approach.
“Looking at environmental health, human health, and animal health as a continuum has the potential to provide great value in other countries in the Global South, especially when looking at the effects of climate change on ecosystems, the emergence and re-emergence of infectious diseases, and the development of antimicrobial resistance mechanisms,” she said.
Ruiz says a quote from Dr. Abhay Bang’s keynote speech at the 2019 American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene Meeting really resonated with her.
“Dr Bang said research should address the needs of the community I work with and not the research community I report to,” she said, “I believe this is a mantra we, as scientists, have to more actively incorporate into our research missions when addressing issues and developing interventions in the global south.”
Ruiz says her work has been stalled a great deal by the pandemic but it has also brought perspective.
“The pandemic has brought to light the importance of surveilling zoonotic disease transmission and I am quite fortunate that I am able to be wholly invested in this work as part of my research,” she said.
Ruiz, who is also the president of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) at Brown University, says the pandemic has also highlighted how racism has led to alarming health disparities that particularly impact Black, Latinx, Native and immigrant communities in the United States;
“As a Latina scientist and the proud daughter of immigrants in biomedical research, I am taking the time to be introspective about the ways in which I can actively interrogate and dismantle the systemic problems within my research field, and academia as a whole, that lead to sociential inequalities and injustices,” she said.
Another scientist with roots in Colombia is also looking for answers to some of the world’s biggest health threats: Javier Jaimes, based at Cornell University, studies COVID-19.
In addition to his scientific role in exploring the novel coronavirus spike (S) protein, Jaimes has been on Colombian radio busting myths about the virus.