The making of a illness detective | Information

Samantha Giffen, PhD ’21, loves the fun of discovery, within the lab and past

Could 6, 2021 – At some point in 2014, Samantha Giffen sat in a small darkish room on the New York State Division of Public Well being’s Wadsworth Heart, peering on the display of a hulking electron microscope. She and a colleague had arrange an experiment to check whether or not an antibody referred to as ZAC-3 would have any impact on Vibrio cholerae, the bacterium that causes cholera, a lethal diarrhoeal illness that afflicts thousands and thousands of individuals in poor international locations. Because the picture got here into focus, Giffen might see that the micro organism’s outer membranes had been crumpled and their tail-like flagella had been coiled, indicators that the antibody had vanquished the pathogen.

“It was so cool,” Giffen says, nonetheless sounding giddy about it. “I set the image of the wrinkled micro organism because the background of my telephone and had it there for like two years.”

Within the years main as much as that second, Giffen, who was working as a lab technician on the time, had made loads of discoveries about science: that science is messy, that science is gradual, that science is difficult, that science is collaborative. However this was her first true scientific discovery and it crammed her with a way of accomplishment she’d by no means skilled.

Vibrio cholerae, the bacterium that causes cholera, as seen beneath an electron microscope after being uncovered to an antibody that Giffen was finding out in 2014.

It additionally propelled her deeper into the world of infectious illness analysis and led her to Harvard T.H. Chan College of Public Well being, the place she is ending up her doctoral diploma within the Program in Organic Sciences in Public Well being.

Summer season on the CDC

Rising up in central New Jersey, Giffen beloved science and had a responsible pleasure for tv reveals about forensics and crime. When she discovered that the Facilities for Illness Management and Prevention (CDC) ran a Illness Detective Camp for highschool college students, it appeared like a dream come true. The immersive expertise taught the then 17-year-old Giffen how epidemiological investigations unfold in the true world and instilled a newfound enthusiasm for public well being, she says.

That enthusiasm led her to enroll as a public well being main on the College of Massachusetts Amherst. Just a few weeks into the primary semester, although, she realized that she was going to overlook getting her fingers soiled in moist labs, so she determined to double main and enrolled within the microbiology program.

“To be trustworthy, as an undergrad, I didn’t totally love public well being and I didn’t totally love microbio,” she says. “However what acquired me actually excited had been the issues that sat proper in the course of the 2 fields—international infectious illness outbreaks, the challenges labs in low-resource settings face, that form of stuff.” One summer time as an undergrad she traveled to Manipal, India as a part of a examine overseas program and labored in a lab, finding out the impact pure tomato extracts had on Candida, a standard reason for fungal infections. After that, she did a summer time program sponsored by the Nationwide Science Basis by which she traveled to South Africa’s northern Limpopo Province to develop ceramic water filters.

Together with her undergrad research coming to an finish, Giffen wasn’t certain about her long-term profession targets aside from figuring out she wished to work in public well being. What was clear, although, was that every one roads ran via graduate faculty. However discovering a doctoral program that would go well with her twin passions wasn’t simple. “I’ve this very distinctive curiosity in public well being and microbiology and there are only a few PhD applications that sit on the intersection of each,” she says. “However Harvard has this tremendous cool organic sciences in public well being program that permits you to do primary science throughout the faculty of public well being.”

A pandemic and a path ahead

Giffen was nicely into engaged on her doctoral thesis on Mycobacterium tuberculosis—the pathogen that causes tuberculosis, a principally respiratory illness that kills roughly 1.4 million individuals a 12 months—when COVID-19 started its international assault. Because the College pivoted to distant studying and briefly shut its laboratories in March 2020, Giffen grew to become intrigued by the prospect of working as a contact tracer to assist monitor the unfold of COVID-19 in Massachusetts and break chains of transmission.

“She actually had one thing to supply in that second. She understands the pathogen, she understands infectious illnesses, and she or he is extremely personable,” says Sarah Fortune, John LaPorte Given Professor of Immunology and Infectious Illnesses, chair of the Division of Immunology and Infectious Illnesses, and Giffen’s thesis advisor. “It’s not the traditional plan of action for somebody to step out of their thesis work and tackle a facet job. However this was an unimaginable second, and it was an unimaginable alternative for her to serve her neighborhood in a approach that she loves.”

Giffen spent six months working as a contact tracer, making a whole bunch of telephone calls to individuals who had been probably uncovered to somebody sick with COVID-19. It was a fragile state of affairs and folks’s responses ranged from gracious to volcanic. “I beloved it, however it was laborious,” she says. “I used to be actually doing the investigative interview that I discovered about as an adolescent on the CDC’s detective camp, so all the pieces got here full circle. And I believe that have will assist make me a greater public well being chief.”

This June, Giffen will defend her thesis, a examine of a protein referred to as WhiB2, which regulates the method of cell division in M. tuberculosis and might be a possible therapeutic goal. After that, she’ll head to the College of North Carolina Chapel Hill for a postdoctoral fellowship in scientific microbiology that’s meant to coach scientific laboratory administrators. As Fortune explains, it’s a job that serves on the intersection of primary science and scientific care. At some point a scientific lab director may be retooling population-level diagnostic methods, and the subsequent day they may be sounding the alarm over a handful of unexplained respiratory infections or the invention of a drug-resistant pathogen.

“In loads of methods, the position of a scientific lab director is the exact opposite of a PhD. Throughout a PhD, you often change into an skilled on a really slim topic, however as a scientific lab director it’s important to know a little bit bit about all the pieces—viruses, parasites, funguses, micro organism,” Giffen says enthusiastically.

It’s a profession path that can demand loads of scientific sleuthing—and one which appears uniquely suited to Giffen.

Chris Sweeney

pictures courtesy of Samantha Giffen

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