I had the pleasure of presenting the exciting research that my colleagues and I, at the University of Hawaiʻi, the University of Liberia, and the National Public Health Institute of Liberia, have been working on for the past year at the 2023 American Society of Tropical Medicine Meeting in Chicago, IL, this past October. It was a chilly week with temperatures dipping into the low 60s-mid 40s°F; far colder weather than Liberia in April, or Thailand where I am now (low 90s-mid 80s°F).
Our project was focused on determining the spatial distribution of arbovirus infections in Liberia using serological sampling of Liberians across the country, with the specific objective of finding differences in ecological niches between urban and rural regions. Not only did we find serological evidence of at least 8 arboviruses found in other West African countries, we also have results that support our previous observation that Dengue virus is more prevalent in the central urban counties of Liberia, while Chikungunya virus infections are more frequent outside the most populated county of Montserrado, where the capital city Monrovia is located.
One theme that was repeatedly emphasized by members of the American Committee on Arthropod-Borne Viruses and Zoonotic Viruses (ACAV) is the declining interest in field research amongst young scientists. I think that our project for the Robert E. Shope International Research Fellowship perfectly embodies the spirit of going to the frontlines of a Low- and Middle-Income Country (LMIC) to uncover and gather information on a serious public health issue.
The Shope Fellowship not only allowed us to generate a cost-effective platform for our arbovirus serological assay, but also offered me an opportunity to conduct a project in a setting that most US researchers will never experience. I witnessed how Liberia is resource-limited, for example through observing how long it took to get experiment-grade water; how expensive and labor-intensive filling the electric generator is; how arduous traveling without properly maintained vehicles and paved roads was; and how challenging conducting science in the country was. Expect the unexpected and eminent delays is the rule that must be followed. Being goal-oriented, flexible, and able to quickly change directions at a moment’s notice are essential traits to have in this setting. But perhaps the most difficult aspect of international research is the loss of independence, where you must rely on others to get your own work done. While your own determination and perseverance do matter, it is really how well you can work with others that determines the outcome.
Tremendous credit must be given to my mentors and those who established the research infrastructure and actively engage with US governmental entities & stakeholders, and the Liberian public health leaders for making this project possible. My Liberian colleagues also deserve credit for the sheer effort and hard work they did to make this project a success.
I would like to thank the CDC and Hawaiʻi Biotech Inc. for providing reagents for developing and validating our assay. Funding for this project was provided by the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (Robert E. Shope International Fellowship), a Cooperative Agreement between the CDC and the University of Hawai‘i (CDC U01-GH-002256), the Ola HAWAII Program & core facilities (U54MD007601), the NIMHD Minority Health Research Training Program (T37MD008636), research support from the NIAID (R01AI132323), and the Northern Pacific Global Health Fellowship Program from the NIH Fogarty International Center (D43TW009345).