George Mason University

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From the classroom to the field, students study infectious diseases in Kenya

September 19, 2018   /   by Mary Lee Clark

Summer is an opportunity for students to take some time off, pursue internships or get a head start on the next semester. But for 19 of Michael von Fricken’s students at George Mason University, this summer was all about bugs. 

Students from von Fricken’s GCH 426 Global Emerging Infectious Diseases online class had the opportunity to spend two weeks in Kenya as an optional part of the course. The participating students spent the semester learning about the transmission of diseases like yellow fever and those caused by the bacteria rickettsia, and applied their new knowledge by collecting ticks and mosquitoes in Kenya. 

"They are reading all these papers about [field research], and they are hearing me talk about it,” said von Fricken, assistant professor of epidemiology at Mason’s College of Health and Human Services. “And then they had the opportunity to experience it.”

The trip provided a unique learning environment for students at the Mpala Research Centre in Laikipia County, Kenya, a wildlife conservancy that supports cutting-edge research in wildlife conservation and health. 

Simultaneously, the students helped von Fricken and Lindsey Shields, a veterinarian with the Smithsonian’s Global Health Program, carry out ongoing vector-borne disease research. With the student researchers, they were able to collect more than 1,500 ticks in a week—a task that Von Fricken said would have taken him three months to do by himself. 

Michael von Fricken demonstrating how to make a mosquito-catching device. Photo by Lathan Goumas.

Students collected ticks by dragging homemade tick drags, large pieces of cloth that the ticks latch onto, and checking them periodically. 

“I didn’t expect to actually go out in a field to catch and pick up ticks for research,” said Allie Vega, BS Community Health ’18, who took von Fricken’s class during her final semester at Mason.“But it puts into perspective what fieldwork is like for these infectious diseases and how nitty-gritty you have to get.” 

Samples will be transferred to the Smithsonian’s Walter Reed Biosystematics Unit, where the ticks and mosquitoes will be screened for a variety of infectious agents.  

“There is a lot of research value in these samples,” said von Fricken. 

The trip received funding from Mason’s Global Education Office through their Global Discovery Program, which supports global experiences that are travel components of existing for-credit courses. The program cut the cost of the trip in half for students. 

"The grant definitely made me able to go on this trip, which was the opportunity of a lifetime,” said Vega. 

But the trip wasn’t just about work. In addition to insect collection, students attended lectures on conservation and outbreak response from members of the Smithsonian Institution and Princeton University, a walking lecture on vegetation and a tour of a conservancy for bongos, an endangered African forest antelope.  

Vega said it was interesting to hear different perspectives from the Smithsonian researchers, who specialized in animal conservation, and how the different fields work together. 

"It was the perfect blend of an immersive experience for infectious disease research as well as providing a crash course in wildlife conservation,” said von Fricken.

Von Fricken said he hopes to return to Kenya with another class in August 2019, this time with a focus on mosquitoes. He is also planning a trip to Equatorial Guinea to train a smaller group of students in vector control methods as part of a malaria elimination project on the island of Bioko, scheduled for May 2019.