skip to main content

NSF grant to send two undergraduates to study disease ecology in Africa

April 24, 2016

Kathleen Alexander with REU students
Kathleen Alexander, right, secured a Research Experience for Undergraduates grant from the National Science Foundation to enable Michelle Wright, left, and Madalyn Fox to conduct research in Africa.

Two Virginia Tech undergraduates will conduct research on the ecology and evolution of infectious disease in northern Botswana, Africa, and high school students and a high school science teacher will travel to Botswana, all thanks to three National Science Foundation (NSF) grants awarded to Kathleen Alexander, associate professor of wildlife in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.

A wildlife veterinarian and co-founder of the Center for Conservation of African Resources: Animals, Communities, and Land Use (CARACAL) in Botswana, Alexander’s research program is directed at exploring and understanding the factors that influence the emergence and persistence of novel and re-emerging diseases at the human-wildlife-environment interface.

The NSF grants were awarded to engage more minority students in the biological sciences.

“Creating minority leaders in the biological sciences is an important component of sustainability as we seek to identify diversity in our scientific workforce,” explained Alexander, who is an affiliate of the Fralin Life Science Institute.

The Virginia Tech students who will benefit from a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates grant are Michelle Wright of Norfolk, Virginia, a wildlife conservation major in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, and Madalyn Fox of Louisa, Virginia, an animal and poultry science major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Now sophomores, both took Alexander’s disease ecology course, a prerequisite for the undergraduate research project, and have spent the spring semester working in the laboratory learning molecular genetic and microbiological techniques.

“I originally thought that the major zoonotic diseases, those that move between animals and humans, were those you hear about on TV, such as H1N1 — or swine flu, which is what led me to work with livestock,” said Fox, who will spend two and a half months in Botswana this summer. “Luckily I found Dr. Alexander’s class and my eyes were opened to so many other factors of disease transmission, survival, and — most importantly — prevention.”

Wright, who will go to Botswana next summer, said she was an aspiring veterinarian until she took Alexander’s class. “I recognized my passion for pathology and diseases, and that I wanted to work alongside Dr. Alexander and begin a career in studying diseases of all varieties. I want to learn exactly how a disease affects the host and how transmission pathways work. I want to get involved in this work right away, so when Dr. Alexander told me I’d be part of this program, you can only imagine how excited I was.”

In Botswana, the undergraduates will develop hypotheses, design experiments, and interpret results related to ongoing research about the spread of a new strain of tuberculosis that Alexander discovered in banded mongoose. The research requires work in the field, tracking and observing wildlife, and visits to local hospitals. The students will be required to present the results of their research.

In addition to the scientific research, Fox and Wright will meet local chiefs, who will discuss the importance of understanding local custom and practice as well as identifying culturally appropriate procedures for engaging in research in a different country.

“We need leaders for tomorrow who understand the needs and challenges of working in the biological sciences in developing nations,” Alexander said. “To be successful, they must know how to engage divergent cultures and priorities, and the need to work with local authorities and government.”

Fox and Wright will also meet regularly with the Botswana Youth Council to understand what it means to be in a minority ethnic group in Botswana. The youth council represents the needs of youth 18 and older, in particular, advocating for employment opportunities.

“While American minority students are underrepresented in the biological sciences, there is an even larger gap in the international sector,” Alexander said. “It is important to have a diverse workforce capable of engaging scientific challenges that occur on a global scale.”

Fox added, “My personal goals for this program are to enlighten future students about issues like lack of formal education and lack of trust, and to increase awareness of other diseases in addition to those you see on television, which, with a little more education, can be prevented.”

The two additional National Science Foundation grants are a Research Experience for Teachers grant and Research Assistantships for High School Students grant, which will bring Blacksburg, Virginia, high school minority students and a local high school science teacher to Botswana next summer. The high school students’ learning activities will span fieldwork and laboratory research with participation in project outreach and education activities. They will also work with the education officer and participate in the K-7 teaching program at two local schools in Botswana.

Wright will help mentor the high school students next summer. This year she will help manage Alexander’s lab at Virginia Tech. She also wants to intern for the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doing disease investigation during her undergraduate and graduate studies, and ultimately to work for the Centers for Disease Control National Center for Emerging Zoonotic and Infectious Diseases.

Alexander has spent the last two decades working with schools and teachers in northern Botswana. The CARACAL center there conducts research, outreach, and education to conserve wildlife and improve the livelihoods of communities. She has also spent time at the local elementary and high schools in Montgomery County, where Virginia Tech is located.

Contact: