By Rachael Warecki ’08
When the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe in the spring of 2020, its impacts on undergraduate scientific research were far-reaching and strongly felt. Students across the country were unable to complete hands-on fieldwork research, which significantly circumscribed their scientific training and competitiveness for graduate programs. After graduating, they were no longer eligible for many types of funding, such as through their colleges or the National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates program. So, when Assistant Professor of Biology Sarah Budischak saw that the NSF had created a special funding program through which NSF grantees could apply for funding on behalf of students who had missed out on fieldwork because of the pandemic, Budischak encouraged Stephanie Du ’21 to apply to work with her in Finland.
Du, who majored in biology, jumped at the chance. “It sounded like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with scientists from all over the world on an important research topic,” she says. “I think every student in the sciences should have the opportunity to do hands-on research, because it provides life skills such as organization, professionalism, and effective scientific communication.”
Their application was accepted, and Du will serve as an NSF Research Experience for Post-Baccalaureate Students (REPS) scholar for the 2021–22 academic year. She’ll travel to Finland with Budischak to study wild bank voles infected with a strain of hantavirus, a disease that can spread from rodents to humans. In 2019, Budischak received an NSF grant from the Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases program for the study, which focuses on how disease-carrying individuals can affect the health of populations and landscapes. Specifically, Budischak and her co-investigators seek to better understand the role of “superspreaders,” or hosts that transmit illnesses at a higher rate than average infected individuals.
“One of the really exciting parts of the project is that we’re focused on the variation among individuals as well as among populations,” Budischak says. “Individual variations aren’t something you can study in a lab, where all the subjects are similar. With this project, we can ask: How do differences among individuals affect disease transmission?”
It’s a particularly timely research question, considering the events of the past year. Climate change, habitat loss, and increased interactions between humans and wildlife will all affect the prevalence of zoonotic diseases such as hantavirus, Du explains, adding that there’s a need to monitor these diseases’ transmission cycles to better understand them. “This is incredibly important for ecological conservation, maintaining global health, and preventing outbreaks,” she says.
Once in Finland, she will assist with fieldwork and laboratory tasks, completing immune assays and parasite diagnostics, particularly in relation to bacterial infections. Budischak says that Du’s work will add “a whole new component to the project,” expanding its scope by examining how bacterial infections are related to the hantavirus.
Du plans to use her experience as a REPS scholar to pursue a master’s in public health and a career as a physician assistant, working directly with patients and providing inclusive health education. She believes the skills she’ll need in her career are in strong alignment with the skills she’ll be honing with the research team in Finland. “You need to be independent and organized enough to get things done on your own, but also communicate clearly and practice professionalism within the group,” she explains. “You need to be ready for every scenario and adapt quickly when a problem arises.”
Du credits her undergraduate experiences at Scripps and in the W.M. Keck Science Department, where she took a course with Budischak as an undergraduate, with preparing her for her time as a REPS scholar. She explains that Scripps provided her with a well-rounded education that encouraged critical thinking and offered her a multitude of opportunities to expand her talents beyond the classroom through a semester abroad in London, leadership in the Women of Color Pre-Health Society, and a Laspa Center for Leadership Community Action Grant.
“Scripps taught me to be confident in my skills and seize those opportunities around me,” she says. “Scripps and Keck encouraged me to stay curious and not be afraid to ask questions—two important attributes for students in science.”