Biologists talk pathogens at Women in Science lecture

The Women in Science hosted their fall lecture, discussing and tracking viral outbreaks.

Abraham Gross

The Women in Science hosted their fall lecture, discussing and tracking viral outbreaks.

Farhin Lilywala, Staff Writer

Elodie Gheden, a researcher in the biology and public health department, discussed her use of genetic sequencing techniques to create insights on human pathogens at the Women in Science annual fall lecture Thursday night. Her work revolves around decoding viruses and parasites that cause diseases in tropical climates.

“I have a fondness for neglected tropical diseases, so diseases mostly of the developing world,” Ghedin said.

Her goal is to track outbreaks and epidemics with human genomics. Ghedin discussed the abundances of viruses, which outnumber parasites and evolve so quickly that humans can be exposed to a whole host of new viral infections.

Much of her work focuses on how these viruses evolve, and if someone could predict whether a new virus could emerge in the human population.

“It’s unlikely I would be able to, but surveillance is still necessary because at least if we have the genomic information, we can have information of what kinds of genes are decoded by the pathogen,” Ghedin said.

The three major pieces of information scientists need are where to look, how to get the samples and how to decode the viruses. CAS sophomore Clara Si, who is interested in viruses, said the night’s talk gave her a new perspective in the field.

“I thought it was very cool because I actually work in a neurology lab, so I study influenza A, but I never was exposed to the mapping of different viruses and the computational biology side of it,” Si said.

Ghedin also detailed epidemics and pandemics that have occurred within the last 15 years.

She began with the SARS epidemic in China during 2003. SARS started from a bat that infected a civet cat, which infected a butcher and it spread from there. Ghedin described this as a zoonotic transmission, which occurs usually when people eat bushmeat or game meat. This generally occurs in isolated areas of the world.

CAS junior Davena Zhang lived in Hong Kong during the SARS epidemic, and said the night gave her an opportunity to further understand the epidemic from a different point of view.

“It’s interesting hearing about it from an epidemiologist’s perspective,” Zhang said. “It’s certainly very current.”

Ghedin went on to talk about the 2009 swine flu pandemic, which began in Mexico, even though it isn’t a hot zone. MURS emerged in Saudi Arabia — also not a hot zone. However, Ebola, the most recent pandemic, emerged in Africa, which is a definite hot zone. She pointed out that infections can pop up regardless if the area is a known hot zone or not.

“Ebola was very much the result of a perfect storm of different events: contact with wildlife, a highly infectious virus, urbanization, transmission easily from human to human, no barrier for transmission,” Ghedin said. “The reason we were taken aback by the spread of Ebola was because the person that was infected would die very quickly. It kills its host so quickly that there’s hardly any time to transmit, [it is] considered highly inefficient.

Ghedin then described how to decode these viruses. This requires sequencing technologies. A small machine called the single molecule sequencer converts RNA to DNA, then reads the DNA through a nanopore. Ten years later, a small machine called the single molecule sequencer replaced the entire system. 

Ultimately, Ghedin hopes that decoding viruses and detecting patterns in pandemics will prepare public health professionals to treat, and perhaps quarantine, patients on time.

Women in Science will hold another lecture in the spring, with potential topics such as coding and computer science.

Email Farhin Lilywala at [email protected].