Dr. Karena Nguyen, Disease Ecologist

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science?

The best perks about being a scientist are sparking wonder and creativity in others (especially the general public!), hearing about ongoing research in other fields, and conducting interdisciplinary research to integrate knowledge across disciplines.

During my time as a Ph.D. student, I did a variety of volunteer projects to engage members of the Tampa community. Science is for everyone, and the best scientists can and do communicate their work to the general public!

I stumbled into science the way most scientists do (I think) – completely by accident. I was set on being pre-med, but when I took Biology II my second semester freshman year, I fell in love with ecology. While everyone else was griping about the topic, the interactions between species and the environment made sense to me. The professor teaching the class noticed and took me under his wing. I started doing undergraduate research in his lab and took General Ecology a couple years later. There was one lecture on disease ecology and I still remember how it sparked these additional questions in my mind, e.g. how does the environment influence the spread of infectious diseases? I was totally hooked from then on and decided to pursue graduate school to answer these questions.

What do you do?

I am mainly interested in how environmental factors, especially temperature, influence interactions between parasites and their hosts. For my dissertation, I studied a human parasite, Schistosoma mansoni, and its intermediate snail host, Biomphalaria glabrata. The parasite must infect a snail before it can infect humans, and I examined how temperature influenced the parasite at various points of its life cycle, in addition to how temperature affected infected snails over time (see figure). I combined published data and laboratory experiments with mathematical models to predict how disease transmission may shift in response to changing temperatures under global climate change conditions.

The life cycle of a parasite. Image credited to @kes_shaw

What are your data, and how do you obtain them?

For my dissertation, I used a combination of published data and data from laboratory experiments to simulate how changes in temperature influence the parasite and its intermediate snail host.

How does your research contribute to the betterment of society?

Infectious diseases of humans and wildlife are increasing due to complex interactions between human population growth, changes in agricultural supply and demand, and global climate change. For example, human population growth is driving increases in agricultural development and accelerating global climate change. As more habitats are cleared for farmland, the likelihood of humans encountering wildlife that carry infectious diseases will likely increase. Global climate change may also influence how easily these diseases are spread between humans and wildlife. Thus, the broader goal of my research is to improve predictions of disease spread so that the public health sector can improve the timing and application of intervention methods. By examining how one part of the puzzle affects disease transmission, we can disentangle what to expect in the future as interactions between humans, animals, and environment continue to change.

Dr. Nguyen is now a postdoctoral scholar at Emory University. Learn more about Karena’s research on her website and by following her on Twitter @Nguyen_4Science

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