Photo of a mosquito provided by CDC Global
Flickr, CDC Global

Ending Dengue Fever

The summer before her senior year at Williams, Leah Katzelnick ’10 was in Nicaragua, studying the complex relationship between international aid workers and the communities they serve, when she contracted dengue fever. Today she is one of a handful of researchers working to find an effective vaccine for the mosquito-borne illness.

Katzelnick’s field work was inspired by a tutorial she had taken on humanitarian intervention. An anthropology major with a concentration in public health, she planned to do research for a thesis on “how nonprofits can support people from low-income countries in ways that are respectful and collaborative, not imposing an ideology or a way of life,” she says. The research would be the basis of her senior thesis.

But one day in Managua, she came down with a fever. Her host family took her to a nearby public clinic, which couldn’t run blood tests until the following day, so they moved her to a private hospital.

The test results showed that Katzelnick had contracted dengue fever, a mosquito-borne virus that—if caught and treated early—is rarely fatal. But she had a pretty bad case of it and so felt lucky to able to afford that private hospital, where she got timely treatment with extensive personal attention from the doctor. She also had the resources to stay at the local Hilton hotel to recuperate. It was one of the only buildings in Managua that was mosquito-free, and she didn’t want to spread the disease.

Katzelnick made a full recovery but returned the U.S. conflicted about her experience. “I felt really guilty about that,” she says in hindsight of the level of care she received. “That hospital was not a place that most children who grow up in Managua would be able to afford.”

When it came time to write her thesis, she decided to focus on the feelings and experiences of foreign aid workers in impoverished communities. “I wanted to understand if other people were feeling guilt, as I was, and if and why they were uncomfortable with their experiences,” she says.

Her bout of dengue fever also left her with “an obsession for the disease” that ultimately drove her to research it.

During her senior year, Katzelnick won the Herchel Smith fellowship, which grants students two years of study at Cambridge University. She completed a master’s in public health during her first year and spent the second year in Derrick Smith’s lab at Cambridge. Smith’s research focuses on the influenza virus, but he welcomed Katzelnick into his lab and mentored her as she started a similar program to understand dengue.

Through that work, she made contact with Stephen Whitehead, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C., and started to travel between the two labs. She learned a computational technique to understand how different sera neutralize different viruses, called antigenic cartography. Through mapping how viruses respond to possible vaccines, Katzelnick hopes to find a way to induce immune responses that will effectively immunize children against this disease.

She stayed on at Cambridge to earn a Ph.D. in zoology, and during that time she got to know another big name in the dengue field—Eva Harris, who studies dengue in Nicaragua and works closely with a Nicaraguan research team via a nonprofit called the Sustainable Sciences Institute. “To study the disease in Nicaragua is a beautiful full circle,” says Katzelnick.

Now in her second year of a postdoc in Harris’s lab at University of California, Berkeley, Katzelnick is studying an interesting question. Some people who contract dengue for a second time have a far worse reaction to it than they did the first, while others do not. But why? Katzelnick is looking at antibodies from children before they get severe dengue and comparing their antibodies to children who do not get sick.

“I’d really like to return to Nicaragua and work more directly with the team there,” she says. And yet, Katzelnick could be one of those to have a dangerous second infection—because she has been away from Nicaragua for so long now and she may not have maintained her immunity.

“The Sustainable Sciences Institute is an integrated and empowering nonprofit,” she adds, bringing the topic back to her undergraduate thesis. “Nicaraguans lead many of the questions that are asked, do the research, and get the credit and training for the scientific work.” That is the kind of nonprofit Katzelnick says she would be proud to join.

By Julia Munemo