Colombian disease ecologist Juliana Hoyos is part of a multidisciplinary team studying the links between deforestation and diseases like Chagas disease and American cutaneous leishmaniasis.
Hoyos, who is currently a graduate research assistant at the Odum school of Ecology, University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, USA says these types of projects provide public health officials with the data and strategies needed to anticipate the northward advance of these two diseases and other vector-borne diseases.
She says that understanding them requires study at different levels, including cross-disciplines such as community ecology, population genetics, integrative taxonomy, environmental data, mathematical modeling, veterinary epidemiology, among others
“Like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, all these elements must be placed correctly to create an accurate representation of disease dynamics; this necessary multidisciplinary approach is, in my opinion, the greatest challenge for professionals in my field,” she says, “This is why I find it so exciting to collaborate on projects such as this one, where researchers aim to combine social and ecological theory in a model-guided empirical investigation that analyzes coexisting vector-borne zoonotic diseases in vulnerable areas such as tropical forests.”
Hoyos says habitat encroachment and land use changes prompt the contact between wild and domestic animals and humans, which results in the exchange and spread of diseases.
“With globalization, the spreading of infectious disease occurs as a Butterfly effect, small disturbances in a tropical forest may impact communities in the other corner of the world,” she says.
Hoyos says her hometown of Buenaventura, Colombia, a seaport located on the country’s Pacific coast, influenced her career.
“I grew up surrounded by the forests of the biogeographic region of Chocó and I think that fact was the base of my fascination by nature,” she says,”Early in my life, I got caught by the amazing diversity we witness in our country, but when I was in the first years of my career it was hard for me to define a single organism group to focus my attention on.”
She would go on to pursue an undergraduate degree in biology from the Universidad del Valle in Cali, Colombia then a master’s degree in biological sciences (Ecology and evolution) at La Universidad de Los Andes in Bogota, Colombia, before starting her doctoral degree in Ecology at University of Georgia, USA.
Hoyos says that it is still amazing to her to think that parasitism is the most common living form in the world, and there is an astonishing number of species and ecological traits involved in this strategy.
“Throughout my professional development I’ve worked with different research institutions on projects that look at the ecology of vector-borne and neglected diseases,” she says, “Vector-borne diseases (such as Leishmaniasis and Dengue) are caused by infectious agents (pathogens) and are transmitted by the contact with arthropods.”
Hoyos says she supports the growing debate on the links between infectious diseases; inequality; and social justice.
“As a Latina in STEM, I am committed to providing a holistic perspective that includes not only theoretical underpinnings, but multicultural interactions and first-hand experiences to fill in the gaps of these complex socio-environmental systems,” she says.
Another researcher of parasites, with roots in the Global South is Amanda Elyssa Ruiz, a PhD student at Brown University in the United States.
She’s looking for potential vaccines to protect against schistosomiasis, a disease that impacts over 250 million people every year, making it the second most socio-economically devastating parasitic disease after malaria.
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