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Behind the Scenes with a Siemens Foundation – PATH Fellow

September 6, 2019 by Miguel Velasco

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Miguel Velasco is one of six 2019 Siemens Foundation – PATH fellows. He spent his fellowship in PATH’s Research and Development lab working on the Plasmodium Vivax (Pv) Elimination Strategy. Photo: PATH

Young researcher joins quest to eliminate malaria

My first day in the PATH lab as a Siemens Foundation - PATH fellow, I thought I was in over my head. All around me were state-of-the-art diagnostic tools buzzing, intricate experiments being carried out, and expert scientists discussing complex projects with lab interns and fellows.

The Siemens Foundation - PATH Fellowship recruits STEM students across the country who have a passion for serving humanity. We join a task force of experts in the effort to fill the need for simple, effective, inexpensive diagnostic tools in low-resource countries. At PATH, fellows work with scientists in the Research and Development laboratory on the next generation of tools to control and eliminate deadly diseases that affect billions of people around the world.

I’m an aspiring research scientist from the San Francisco Bay Area. This year, I am a rising junior at Carleton College in Minnesota, where I study chemistry. As the first in my family to attend college, I never dreamed that I’d find myself working in a laboratory in Seattle with expert scientists. Or that I could conduct research with the potential to save lives.

When I arrived this June, PATH had announced its role in launching the malaria vaccine. But a vaccine is only part of the complex quest to eliminate malaria. The disease remains endemic in Sub-Saharan Africa and rural India. Each year, it claims the lives of more than half a million people worldwide. Turns out, malaria is also incredibly diverse; each strain has unique characteristics that respond to treatment and diagnostics tools differently.

My fellowship project has me working on the Plasmodium Vivax elimination strategy team, which supports the development of ultra-sensitive, low-cost, and rapid diagnostic tools to help make sure people with Plasmodium vivax (P. vivax) malaria get the right diagnosis and treatment. The goal of my research project is to generate sample material for rapid diagnostic tests using Plasmodium knowlesi (P. knowlesi). Plasmodium is the parasite genus that causes malaria.

P. vivax malaria is a unique and deadly strain of the disease. It can lie dormant in the body, doesn’t respond to traditional anti-malarial drugs and is difficult to detect on industry standard diagnostic tools. P. vivax is also incredibly challenging to grow in the lab, which makes it impossible to test, research and replicate. On the other hand, P. knowlesi is responsive to culturing practices in place at PATH. Due to their genetic similarities, we can use P. knowlesi as a substitute for P vivax in diagnostic testing.

PATH is one of the only research institutions in the world attempting to develop sample material for P. vivax rapid diagnostic tests in this way, so my work this summer is unprecedented. Each morning my mentor, Becky Barney, and I head to the tissue culture room to grow these parasites that have been delivered to the lab at minus 80 degrees Celsius. Our goal: create baseline samples for diagnostic testing. If we’re successful, we move one step closer to creating a diagnostic tool that can be brought into the field and save lives.

This summer, Becky and I have been able to generate enough sample material to run thousands of rapid diagnostic tests. In the last few weeks of my fellowship, we will begin the process of diagnostic testing with several prototype and commercially available P. vivax diagnostic tests.

Becky has taught me how to successfully culture Plasmodium parasites in lab, how to monitor parasite growth under the microscope, and so much about her experience as a scientist. Throughout our long hours in lab, Becky shares anecdotes from her own professional development, journey through higher education, and experiences in different fields of research science. Through her feedback and guidance, I am a more confident, precise, and professional scientist.

As my fellowship winds down, I look back on the countless articles I’ve read, the dozens of successful (and not so successful) experiments I’ve run in the lab, and the relationships I’ve built. Over the course of three and half months at PATH, I have become an expert in advanced lab techniques and experimental design, and have gained a deeper understanding of the demands of a career in science. I’ve met other fellows and peers who share my passion for this work. In a few years, we will be the leaders in healthcare innovation and equity.

Our ability to reach global health goals is only limited by our willingness to take risks. And after my experience as a Siemens Foundation - PATH fellow, I’m optimistic for the future and prepared to make a difference in the world.

Note: The Siemens Foundation has provided funding for this program since 2016. As of this summer, PATH has graduated 24 fellows. Applications for summer 2020 open early fall. Check PATH’s career site for more information.