Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Becoming a Triatomine Trapper: Chagas Disease Independent Project

By Spencer Darveau
During these past few weeks at La Selva Biological Station (our last few weeks in Costa Rica), we have all been working hard on our independent projects. My project, along with three other students, was entitled “An assessment of Chagas disease risk and management in Trinidad, Puerto Viejo, Sarapiquí, Costa Rica.” For three weeks, I was able to interview community members about their Chagas disease knowledge, actively search for the vectors (triatomines) that carry and transmit the Chagas parasite (Trypanosoma cruzi), and work in the laboratory using microscope analysis, PCR, and gel electrophoresis.

            What did I learn from all this? Research is truly exhausting, and each project comes with an entire suite of obstacles to overcome and decisions to be made. From figuring out materials to use to set up and utilize effectively the light traps to catch triatomines, to inconclusive PCR results, we had to deal with frustrations and solve unforeseen problems. Throughout the whole process, however, I realized that these obstacles are essential to a good scientific study as well as my own personal growth as a future scientist: without obstacles, what is there to learn?

            I am glad that my project had both a community component (interviewing community members in Trinidad in Spanish) as well as a laboratory component (analyzing the triatomines). Being able to interact with the community of Trinidad, a place located 2 km from La Selva that is at-risk for Chagas disease, summated what we learned this semester and contextualized it for me in a more human way. Almost half of the community still had no idea what Chagas disease was, even with a small educational campaign from last year’s study. Our Tropical Diseases course centered around Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs). It was interesting to find out that so many people in areas at-risk for Chagas, an NTD, had zero knowledge about it. When asking the first question of our survey, “Have you ever heard of Chagas disease,” we received several blank stares and misunderstandings. Many thought we were saying “llagas,” which are skin lesions from Leishmaniasis. Many seemed to have confused Chagas with Dengue or Zika, which are more highly publicized. Going out into the community and hearing from the community members made me see the work that truly does need to be done to help similar communities at-risk for NTDs throughout Costa Rica and in other countries, starting with spreading educational awareness about the diseases themselves. 
This semester has allowed me to experience field research first-hand in a way that I would never have experienced at Brown. Learning about social determinants of health or tropical diseases in a classroom in New England would have been much different and would not have had as much of an impact on my life; learning about these topics in areas actually at-risk for these diseases contextualizes the information in a real way. This semester has shown me an appreciation and respect for the mysterious tropics: the extensive knowledge of the various rich yet endangered cultures that exist here, the exotic plants that may hold secrets to fighting illnesses, and the diseases that are endemic and spreading. So many new discoveries are just waiting to be found, so much potential and knowledge left to be uncovered. I am now invigorated more than ever to go back to the United States and continue studying about global health and tropical diseases, keeping in mind the real-life learning I experienced in Costa Rica.