When people say “your job will take you places,” they don’t usually mean to a remote village of Papua New Guinea, sitting by someone’s bedside in the night as they donate blood. But that’s just one of the places that Sara Erickson’s work has taken her, when she began her graduate research at the UW School of Veterinary Medicine. Erickson studies lymphatic filariasis, a disease caused by a parasitic worm that is carried and passed on by mosquitoes. Erickson completed her PhD degree in August 2011.
“I’ve worked in mosquito research for 11 years now,” said Erickson, who still finds no shortage of fascinating phenomena in the mosquito world to keep her busy. The research for her PhD thesis targeted the different parasitic worms responsible for lymphatic filariasis, the disfiguring disease commonly known as elephantiasis. “Of course, we don’t have those in the States,” said Erickson. “But I’ve always enjoyed traveling.”
That travel took Erickson to Papua New Guinea, one of the most endemic regions for lymphatic filariasis. Although not fatal, the disease is nonetheless destructive, with a devastating morbidity rate. “Seeing the impact in endemic areas is really astounding,” Erickson said. “People can no longer live the same life.”
Erickson and her advisor, Bruce Christensen, designed research projects to investigate the parasites responsible for the disease and the mosquitoes that transmit it. “We want to critically define how good mosquitoes are at transferring these diseases,” said Christensen. “We try to look at mosquitoes in the real world, and how well they do or do not function.”
According to Erickson, this data is invaluable to any plan to eradicate the parasite. “Lymphatic filariasis is being targeted for elimination,” she said. But the drugs available affect only one stage in the parasite’s lifecycle, meaning that it’s easy for them to resurge if the whole population isn’t eliminated. An eradication program must be carefully timed based on accurate data. Cutting the program short risks a resurgence, while running it too long is economically impractical.
Armed with a grant from the NIH Fogarty International Center and an agreement with the Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research (PNGIMR), Erickson left for Madang, Papua New Guinea to set up her research program. Her first task was to find an endemic village that could be studied in detail, and that proved harder than expected.
“That’s pretty easy to write in a grant. It’s just a few lines,” said Erickson. “But it took about a month and a half.”
Erickson’s research requires human blood samples to test the current levels of infection and track the parasite’s rate of spread. Not only is this logistically complicated, as the parasite is only present in the bloodstream by night, but it also requires a relationship with the local people. “It takes a long time to build that relationship,” said Erickson. She credits PNGIMR for the help she received in making these connections possible.
Once that trust was established, Erickson went into the village with the PNGIMR team to collect blood samples, setting up cots to draw blood overnight in what they call “night bleeds.” “It’s an event then,” said Erickson. “The children come out and follow us around.” In this festive atmosphere, they gather the blood they need to collect their data, returning to the lab the next day.
Moving from village to village, Erickson experienced the diverse culture of Papua New Guinea. “These villages are five minutes apart, but their cultures can be very different,” said Erickson. “Every village has its own dialect.” Locals speak Malaysian Pidgin, a unique langue with so many near-English words that Erickson found she could understand it. “There’s no real language barrier,” said Erickson. But, like all cultural differences, some aspects of the language took getting used to. “I was always called the ‘white meri,’” said Erickson. “That’s their word for ‘woman.’”
After two trips overseas, Erickson learned more than you can put in a research paper. “Working in Papua New Guinea, you never know what to expect on a given day,” said Erickson. “You learn to accept it.”
Even with her thesis work completed in August 2011, Erickson has no intention of cutting her ties with Papua New Guinea. “We still have one and a half years left on the project,” said Erickson. She looks forward to keeping up the ties she forged by her research. “You want to build scientific relationships with people in other countries,” said Erickson.
Erickson’s next move will build even more connections as she is works on her post doctoral research at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia, where she will be their first mosquito researcher.