EPI undergraduate research spans from Africa to Argentina

Dr. Liang introducing student to emerging pathogens research
Dr. Liang introducing student to emerging pathogens research.

EPI investigator Song Liang enjoys introducing undergraduate students to the mesmerizing world of pathogens research. His most recent mentee, Lindsay Richards, recently won UF’s campus-wide Undergraduate Research Symposium best paper competition in the STEM/Medicine category.

Lindsay Richards with a model of the mosquito Aedes aegypti.

If there is one thing Emerging Pathogens Institute researcher Song Liang would like undergraduate students to know about the EPI, it’s that the organization provides a rich environment not only for researchers like himself, but also for students of any level. The key prerequisite? Insatiable inquisitiveness.

Over the past six years, Liang has introduced four different undergraduates to the world of pathogens research via his lab; and his most recent mentee, Lindsay Richards, recently won UF’s campus-wide Undergraduate Research Symposium best paper competition in the STEM/Medicine category.

“EPI offers a very good experience for undergraduates,” says Liang, who is also an associate professor of environmental and global health in the College of Public Health and Health Professions. “They come to my lab with relatively limited knowledge, because they have just started. But they have a strong curiosity, and that is all they need. Step by step, they learn how to investigate questions and write up papers.”

Fecal samples brought to Instituto Malbrán for analysis.

Richards met Liang two years ago at a lecture where she expressed interest in global health and environmentally-mediated infectious diseases – two of his areas of expertise. She had some prior experience traveling abroad, after a stint in Madagascar shadowing a mobile health clinic, and Liang wanted to find out what she may be capable of. He invited her to attend his lab’s weekly meetings. There, Richards mingled with a Fulbright Scholar from Argentina and a visiting scholar from Brazil, and she listened in on wide-ranging discussions about neglected tropical diseases. It wasn’t long before she had some research questions of her own.

With Liang’s lab as a gateway, Richards dove into two different research projects involving neglected tropical diseases and parasites.

In the first project, Richards performed a literature review investigating all published cases from Africa of non-human primate infections with Schistosomiasis mansoni. It’s a water-borne parasitic flatworm, also called a fluke, that infects hundreds of millions of people in Africa. There is increasing concern that our primate relatives – such as chimpanzees, baboons, and old-world monkeys – may play a role in transmitting the parasite to humans, though this remains a hypothesis in need of testing.

In order to better understand the situation, Richards mined existing published works to connect the dots between S. mansoni infection rates in African non-human primates, where these animals’ habitat ranges are, and human infection rates in overlapping areas to determine implications for public health interventions.

A study participant collects a water sample to check for mosquito larvae inside a household container in Puerto Iguazú. 

Working with Liang and others, Richards led the study which was published in the journal Infectious Diseases of Poverty. (Disclosure: Liang is on the journals’ editorial board.) EPI investigator Sadie Ryan, who is also an associate geography professor in UF’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is a coauthor on the paper. The team determined a pooled estimated infection rate of about 10 percent across 22 different species of non-human primates. They also found a positive relationship between where these species live and human infection rates with S. mansoni. However, it was unclear how significant this relationship may be in terms of characterizing spillover risks between humans and other primate species due to patchiness in the existing data.

This project set Richards up to launch into a summer field study surveying intestinal parasites and species types in a rural Argentinian village. With funding from UF’s Summer Undergraduate International Research Program and sponsorship from Liang, Richards traveled to Buenos Aires where she worked under Argentinian project investigator Victoria Periago of Fundación Mundo Sano.

The South American project revolved around a survey to gather data infection prevalence with gastrointestinal parasites through the analysis of fecal samples as well as baseline health and household information. Richards traveled to rural areas surrounding Pampa del Indio in Chaco Province where she assisted in administering the survey and collecting stool samples from residents. 

Mosquito larvae in the lab in Puerto Iguazú.

“Doing the literature review on schistosomiasis was helpful because it covered a lot of the field techniques for testing for parasites, so I had a really good background for that going into the summer field study,” Richards says. “I was able to be involved with a lot of the testing in Argentina myself.” Richards also assisted in identifying the parasites. “We did not know what parasites or protozoa were in the area, and risks the local villagers were experiencing, so we wanted to establish what may be there,” Richards says. “One day, it would be nice to have all of Argentina mapped out with what pathogen exists where.”

The Argentina project determined that there was a parasite prevalence of 46.8 percent among the villagers, with the most common parasites being the protozoa Endolimax nana (22.6 percent), followed by the microorganism Giardia lamblia (17.7 percent), and the amoebozoa Entamoeba coli (16.1 percent). In addition, nearly 20 percent of the villagers were parasitized by more than one species. While these parasites don’t typically cause disease, they can cause chronic diarrhea and malnutrition.

“Plus, these rates of parasitism give us an idea about the water quality in this area and could perhaps inform some public health interventions,” Richards says.

Preserved specimens at Instituto Malbrán.

Richards, who is graduating this May with a double major in microbiology and economics, wants to continue in higher education to pursue combined medical and public health degrees. “I’m interested in tropical medicine and infectious diseases,” she says. “I’m drawn to how policies and public health interventions can improve people’s lives.”

Liang notes that for an undergraduate to have a meaningful introductory experience with research, they must make a time commitment of at least one year. It’s time well spent for both mentee and mentor. “Mentoring is a rewarding experience for me as well,” Liang says. “Especially when you see your student achieve accolades as has Lindsay.”

By: DeLene Beeland