From lab bench to global impact: A JABSOM PhD's journey in public health research

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Listen to Olivia's story on The JABSOM Pulse: Heartbeat 4

Olivia Smith with podcast host Deborah Dimaya

Growing up, Olivia Smith had always thought her future career would involve medicine but while pursuing her bachelor’s degree in neuroscience at the University of Vermont, she realized that she fancied her time at the lab bench and in the field, absorbed in the world of research.

“I thought to myself, ‘oh I really like this.’ I like finding out these intricate pathways and things that make up these evidence-based practices that we can use in the real world,” said Smith. 

Yearning to explore and see more of the world, Smith signed up for the Peace Corps, spending a total of two years in Peru, serving last as a water, sanitation and hygiene educator. The real world experience served as a catalyst for her to pursue a Master’s of Public Health in Epidemiology from the University of Massachusetts Lowell. The next adventure for Smith would be flying across the continent and over the Pacific Ocean to begin her PhD program at the University of Hawaiʻi John A. Burns School of Medicine (UH JABSOM) in early 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic began taking its toll in the United States.

“The pandemic was quite memorable but I’m really happy with the time I’ve had here. Even though the pandemic definitely hindered it a little– it definitely directed my research and not in a bad way,” said Smith, who successfully defended her dissertation, “Assessing Vaccine Efficacy and Seroprevalence Using Multiplex Immunoassays: Development, Validation, and Applications in Diverse Populations,” in November 2023.

Smith's research involved three parts, including the development of a multiplex immunoassay (MIA), a tool that detects antibody levels after given a vaccine. This can indicate how effective a vaccine is and how well it works in various groups of people, even those with different health conditions. After analyzing the response to COVID-19 vaccines using these MIAs, she found that comorbidities like obesity and diabetes reduce vaccine efficacy. 

Smith, who mentored under Associate Professor Dr. Axel Lehrer, is hopeful that the results may open the door for future research that perhaps studies specifically-tailored vaccines for those with comorbidities like obesity and diabetes. 

“It’s not to say that people with obesity and diabetes shouldn’t get vaccinated, if anything it’s the exact opposite– they should be vaccinated, 100%, because people with these comorbid conditions are more susceptible to severe disease,” Smith said.

Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders and Filipinos having higher rates of diabetes compared to other races/ethnicities in the state. In addition to Hawaiʻi being an epicenter of tourism, Smith emphasizes how critical it is to protect the people that live here.

“If comorbidities are more affluent in this state, then making sure that we have tailored prevention strategies for these individuals and for people at risk is extremely important,” Smith said. 

Smith graduates this Saturday with her PhD in Tropical Medicine, Medical Microbiology & Pharmacology, joining six others obtaining their PhDs from JABSOM in December. This time, Smith is heading back home with aspirations to do fieldwork in the realm of global public health. Her life experiences and her research has shown her how vaccines can be a great prevention method that can lead to her dream of achieving health equity for all.

“I’m a big advocate for health equity. I think health is a human right. Everyone deserves (good) health,” said Smith. 

In her spare time, Smith embraces her creative side and sells items with her designs on Etsy at ScienceHeartCo. You can listen to our full interview with Smith on our podcast, The JABSOM Pulse.