November 1, 2018
By Zoe Liu
For every PhD student who studies population health, we dream of travelling to countries where our disease of interest is endemic, and I am no exception. I have been looking at naturally acquired antibody kinetics following a symptomatic Plasmodium vivax infection at WEHI in Melbourne for two years, and the human plasma samples I have been using are from Thailand. We are hoping that studying these humoral response profiles will allow us to learn more about the development of immune responses naturally induced by malaria parasites. Additionally, having spent almost three decades in malaria-eradicated countries, I had only learned what is like to live with the disease from textbook pictures and seminars given by researchers with fieldwork experiences. I had always felt like something was missing, until my supervisor Dr Rhea Longley mentioned to me about a travel scholarship opportunity.
I was very fortunate to receive the Travel and Training Award from ACREME to spend two weeks in Thailand. For the first week I visited the Mahidol Vivax Research Unit at Mahidol University in Bangkok to measure antibody kinetics following asymptomatic P. vivax infections by accessing their archival plasma samples and Luminex platform. Dr Jetsumon Sattabongkot and her team were most helpful and friendly during my stay. They made sure I was well supplied and went the extra mile to show me their insectary room and explained how mosquitoes were grown and bred in detail.
For the second week, I was allowed to follow the field team to Tha Song Yang District in Tak Province, an approximately 9-hour drive away from Bangkok. For four days every morning, the team arrived at local malaria clinics or the hospital to collect blood samples from symptomatic individuals who were malaria-positive (detected by light microscopy) and from those returning for passive case detection (PCD) study. We were lucky enough to have one malaria positive case whose blood sample was processed and fed to the malaria-negative mosquitoes bred at MVRU upon consent. These mosquitoes would be used for optimising an in vitro culture method for P. vivax. Over the years, the field team has formed a strong bond with the local healthcare facilities and their patients, serving as a bridge between researchers and local community.
This trip to Thailand has provided me with more than what I asked for. In the lab with the help from supportive staff, I have produced results that can not only be used as an indicator of the immune and exposure status of individuals or areas at risk of P. vivax transmission, but also as a potential surveillance tool that can be used across geographically distinct low-transmission countries. In the field site, I have learned to appreciate the effort and patience of field teams, and how every sample has come a long way to be used in the labs they generously share with.
Through multiple conversations, be it presenting my work in the meeting room or casual chats in the cafeteria over spicy vermicelli soup, I have also made new friends whose enthusiasm in research and dedication in eliminating malaria are inspiring. After such a rewarding experience, I would encourage population health researchers at any stages of their career to visit overseas study sites to learn things outside the lab and strengthen the alliance between international institutes.
I would like to thank my supervisors Prof Ivo Mueller and Dr Rhea Longley for being so supportive of this trip, and Dr Jetsumon Sattabongkot and Dr Sadudee Chotirat for being such thoughtful and generous hosts. Most importantly, I would like to thank ACREME for providing me with this rare opportunity.