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What's in a Bite? 

As they seek out mosquitoes to research ways to prevent disease, the team has driven hours on unpaved roads, and been accompanied by armed guards through known smuggling routes.

ALBANY, N.Y. (Aug. 30, 2017) – Schenectady native Kaitlin Driesse, a master’s degree student in epidemiology, has spent her summer chasing mosquitoes instead of slapping at them.

Driesse has an international internship at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, where she analyzes the bacterial composition of mosquitoes and other biting insects.

“The second I stepped out of the airport, I was drenched in sweat,” she said. “Ninety-degree weather and 90 percent humidity are rough for a girl from upstate New York, but perfect for Aedes mosquitoes harboring tropical diseases. That’s why I’m here after all.”

Driesse just finished her first year at the School of Public Health, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in epidemiology and graduate certificates in Global Health Studies and Public Health Surveillance and Preparedness.

She and her colleagues (who call themselves the ‘Mosquito Team’) are looking for the bacterium Wolbachia. For many years scientists have been studying Wolbachia, looking for ways to use it to potentially control the mosquitoes that spread human diseases, including Dengue fever.

Our research has shown that when introduced into the Aedes aegypti mosquito, Wolbachia can stop these viruses from growing inside the mosquito and being transmitted to people. This important discovery has the potential to transform the fight against life-threatening viral diseases,” Driesse said.

Dengue fever is ranked by the World Health Organization as the most important mosquito-borne viral disease in the world – and the most rapidly spreading – with a 30-fold increase around the globe in the last 50 years. Thirty percent of the world’s population, in more than 100 countries, is at risk of infection.

The symptoms of Dengue fever are a sudden, high fever, severe headaches, pain behind the eyes, severe joint and muscle pain, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and a skin rash that appears two to five days later. Dengue haemorrhagic fever, a more severe form of the disease, results in up to 25,000 deaths a year worldwide. There is no known vaccine or cure for dengue fever.

Driesse earned her undergraduate degree in biology and Spanish from UAlbany in 2015. “It was at UAlbany that I took a course in parasites and human welfare and became fascinated by mosquito-borne diseases,” she said.

Driesse’s internship is a mix of lab work, collaborating with researchers from Panama, England and Spain, and field work conducted throughout the country.

“Our field work, collecting mosquitoes, allows us the opportunity to educate local communities in rural areas about the issues with standing water and ways in which they can lower their risk of contracting mosquito-borne diseases such as Dengue, Zika and Chikungunya,” she said.

Driesse is learning to navigate life in Panama City. She has experienced “traffic jams lasting hours, showers with only cold water, unpredictable internet connection and a lack of addresses making it nearly impossible to navigate.”

How did she find out about this opportunity?

During her first semester as a School of Public Health graduate student, she attended the Center for Global Health’s fall seminar, which provides information for those seeking international internships and work experiences.

Through the seminar, she met Laura D. Kramer, director of the New York State Arbovirus Laboratory at the Wadsworth Center, and two international researchers she was mentoring at the time. One of them, Gilberto Eskildsen, is affiliated with INDICASAT, a scientific research institute located in Panama. Driesse shared her interest in vector-borne diseases and her desire to practice Spanish (her undergraduate minor at UAlbany). Eskildsen introduced her to his mentor, José Loaiza, who works at INDICASAT as well as the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Driesse and Loaiza, assisted by the expertise of John Justino, director of the UAlbany Center for Global Health, developed a personalized internship that met her career goals.

The team has driven hours through unpaved roads, been accompanied by armed guards through known smuggling routes, and used an innovative device created by Loaiza to pump mosquitoes out of crabholes deep within mangrove forests.

Through her international internship, Driesse is “meeting people from all over the world and forming connections that would have never been made otherwise.”

According to Driesse, the experience has also allowed her to solidify her knowledge of Spanish and learn vocabulary associated with the work she does in the lab and the field while serving as “an amazing starting point for my career in global health. I am so thankful for the opportunity.”

Director of the Center for Global Health John Justino said that “creating opportunities for highly motivated students like Kaitlin is a key part of the mission of our Center.” He emphasized that “gaining meaningful, real-world experiences living and working abroad while in school is vitally important for students looking to open doors to a career in global health.”

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