Today’s young research scientists are proving that you don’t need decades of experience to make an impact in medicine and help change the world. The Young Investigator Award, given at the annual meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene - the world's premiere conference on infectious diseases in the developing world - recognizes successful early-career researchers for their innovative work to advance research on malaria, dengue, and other diseases that place a heavy burden on people in developing countries. This year we checked in with some of the inspiring past winners to learn more about what sparked their interest in this work, and what they’re up to now.
NANA WILSON, Ghana
Nana Wilson has always been interested in the answer to “why.” After surviving malaria multiple times as a child in Ghana, and watching as others around him died from the disease, he was compelled to figure out what was going wrong. “I like to think about why certain things happen – why one person would survive while another would die. You can only do that through research,” said the 30-year-old.
Nana recently completed a Ph.D. in Biomedical Science from the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta. During his fieldwork he found that children under five living in malaria endemic countries were dying of cerebral malaria – a severe form of the disease that is difficult to diagnose and treat.
In 2012, Nana presented at ASTMH’s annual meeting on a cerebral malaria treatment that was found to reduce brain inflammation and improve recovery of mice with late stages of the disease. He is now an Epidemic Intelligence Officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), where he looks at responses to public health threats and manages the surveillance of parasitic diseases.
“Research on these diseases was a way for me to make a difference and help prevent morbidity and mortality in endemic areas,” said Nana.
JOAN NANKABIRWA, Uganda
Thirty-six-year-old Joan Nankabirwa has dedicated her career to improving the lives of Uganda’s schoolchildren – an age group she says is “often ignored.” By researching the effect of malaria preventions on children’s illness and cognitive function, she hopes to identify the best ways to protect them from the disease, and ultimately improve their educational attainment. In 2011, she was recognized through the Young Investigator award for her incredible work in this field.
“Tropical diseases usually concentrate in the poorest groups and more action is seriously needed,” she said.
Growing up in Uganda, Joan saw first-hand the impact diseases like malaria had on those around her. She was exposed to the medical profession as a young girl, as she watched her aunt, a pediatrician, and her mother, a midwife, improve the lives of their patients. She saw medicine as a way for her to make a difference in her country, sparking her passion for a career in the field.
“It is encouraging that a researcher like me can make a small contribution and have such a large impact on many people,” Joan said.
Joan completed her Ph.D. from Makerere University in Kampala this year and continues to focus her research on school-based malaria interventions, as well as ways to strengthen malaria surveillance.
KOVI BESSOFF, United States
Thirty-one-year-old Kovi Bessoff, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Vermont, thinks we can find a better way to treat one of the leading causes of diarrhea. Cryptosporidiosis (known as “Crypto”), a disease easily contracted through contaminated water, can have serious and life-long impacts on young children and those with compromised immune systems, particularly those with AIDS. Unfortunately, the only available treatment for Crypto isn’t effective for many of those infected.
Kovi won the Young Investigator award in 2012 for his research on improving therapeutics for treatment of the disease, and is working to identify the next big breakthrough.
“I realized at a young age that in order to do good in global health you need good medicine. That’s why I became a researcher,” said Kovi.
Kovi credits a trip to Chile at age 17 as an eye-opener for him on the challenges impacting the developing world. In his early twenties, Kovi got the chance to work with the CDC and took it. He spent two years working in Puerto Rico on testing dengue vaccines and standardizing diagnostics for the disease. Dengue is a leading cause of hospitalization in the region.
“The field of tropical medicine offers opportunities to do so many different things and have an amazing impact. I think you just have to believe in what you’re working on, find something you’re excited about and go with it,” Kovi said.
FERNANDO BRUNO, Brazil
Growing up in Rio de Janeiro, Fernando Bruno wanted to become a researcher for as long as he can remember. Today, at just 29 years old, he’s using his passion for medicine to fight a disease that has ravaged parts of his home country.
After starting his career in neuropathology, Fernando soon saw a way to apply his experience studying the brain to improve knowledge about cerebral malaria. He saw the need most acutely while serving as a physician in the Brazilian army, watching as his friends and colleagues were deployed to the Amazon region and put at risk of the fatal illness.
“Infectious diseases too often affect countries that don’t have the means for the research they need. We can change that,” Fernando said.
Fernando’s career in science has also led him down unexpected paths. While working in Brazil, he met and travelled the country with Dr. Patch Adams, the inspiration for a 1998 film starring the late Robin Williams that explored the challenge of improving the relationships in patient care. As part of their work, they funded an institution that assists those living with HIV.
In 2013, Fernando was given the Young Investigator Award for his research on an imaging technique used to assess brain inflammation and severity caused by cerebral malaria. “My life is living proof that whatever goal you make, you can achieve it. What are the chances a middle class guy from Brazil could not only work beside the doctors who inspired him, but also come to the US and win awards? It shows that you should not be afraid to branch out, and shouldn’t be discouraged by not knowing much about a new field you’re getting into,” he said.
JEN MANNE, United States
After travelling the world, Jen Manne landed in rural Guatemala at 23 years old and found her passion for tropical medicine. While working with the country’s Ministry of Health she learned about Chagas, a little-known parasitic disease that can cause flu-like symptoms in the short term and heart failure and death in the long term. Despite affecting an estimated 8 million people throughout Mexico, Central America and South America, Jennifer says it has remained an “invisible disease.”
“It’s unfortunate that Chagas impacts millions of lives, but gets so little attention because of where those affected by it live. It’s devastating, but hidden. That’s actually what makes research on this disease so compelling to me,” Jen said.
Now a 31-year-old Resident in Internal Medicine at Harvard Medical School, Jen is working with the CDC to analyze barriers to care for the disease, which can inform policy on diagnosis and treatment. She won the Young Investigator award at ASTMH in 2012 for her work on barriers to treatment for Chagas in Mexico.
“Despite all the wonderful things we do as a global health community, there are still people and diseases that are left out. I feel proud that the type of research I’m doing allows me to have a huge impact on communities that get little of what they need,” said Jen.