LabTV: Curious About Malaria

Elyse MunozIt’s the time of year when thoughts turn to buying school supplies and heading back to the classroom or off to university. So, throughout the month of August, I’ll be sharing LabTV profiles of young people whose learning experiences have set them on the path to becoming biomedical researchers.

One of the great things about college is that you never know where those four years might lead you. Elyse Munoz, who’s the focus of today’s video, offers an excellent case in point. Upon enrolling at Arizona State University, Tempe, she chose political science as her major—only to find the classes “incredibly boring.” Then a friend talked Munoz into taking an anatomy class, and suddenly everything clicked: she discovered biology was her true calling.

Now, Munoz is a candidate for a Ph.D. in genetics at Pennsylvania State University, State College. Working in the lab of molecular parasitologist Scott Lindner, Munoz is contributing to the search for promising vaccine targets for malaria, a mosquito-borne disease that kills more than a half-million people, mainly children under the age of 5, around the globe each year.

I’ve cared for children and adults with malaria myself when I served as a volunteer physician in Nigeria. I can vouch for what a serious illness this is. Because the parasitic microbe that causes malaria (Plasmodium) is growing increasingly resistant to anti-malarial drugs, an effective vaccine is desperately needed to protect the half of the world’s population that lives in at-risk, tropical regions.

Munoz and her colleagues have already uncovered a promising lead. They recently characterized an RNA-binding protein (Puf2) that appears to play a key role in keeping fertilized Plasmodium egg cells (sporozoites) in an infectious state during the two-week period when they develop inside their insect vector (mosquitoes) and await transmission via mosquito bites to their warm-blooded host (humans). When the Penn State team used genetic engineering to knock out the Puf2 gene, the sporozoites gradually lost their infectivity, suggesting a possible strategy to stop the parasites from causing malaria.

While she admits that lab work is often hard, Munoz says what keeps her going is a desire to make a difference for people and communities in need. To her, research offers more than a road to a rewarding career—it provides the opportunity to effect positive change and solve major global challenges, including health threats like malaria. A wonderful mindset that she sums up so well with these words: “Science really makes the world go ‘round.”

Links:

LabTV

Malaria (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Elyse E. Munoz Receives the ASM Robert D. Watkins Graduate Research Fellowship. PennState Science. August 11, 2014.

Scott Lindner (Pennsylvania State University, State College)

Science Careers (National Institute of General Medical Sciences/NIH)

Careers Blog (Office of Intramural Training/NIH)

Scientific Careers at NIH

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