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Xavier Magazine | March 29, 2017

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The World is a Big Classroom

The World is a Big Classroom
By France Griggs Sloat

It was the height of the winter season in Lima, Peru, a good time to travel around the country and see its sights—the coastal region, the mountains, the Amazon jungle. But Ann Fiegen couldn’t get out. The senior was serving as a Brueggeman Fellow last summer, conducting research about public health systems in a developing country, and was holed up inside a nondescript government research lab. While tourism soared, she was getting a firsthand education testing blood, serum and tissue samples for highly contagious mosquito-born viruses—primarily yellow and dengue fevers.

Then it arrived. Among a batch of samples that came in from Cuzco, in the high Andes where a yellow fever outbreak was under way, was a piece of the liver from a person who had died. Fiegen was a little uncertain. Frogs in biology class and blood samples are one thing. Human tissue is something else altogether.

“It was emotional for me when handling an actual piece of someone who had died,” she says. “They said I didn’t have to do it if I didn’t want to, but I said, ‘No, I want to help.’ ”

She processed the sample, and it tested positive for yellow fever. “I logged it into the database and moved forward.”

How fitting. Fiegen has been moving forward ever since she came to Xavier from Roseville, Minn. Her freshman biology professor spotted her talent for science and encouraged her to think about going into scientific research if not medical school. Fiegen took the advice and began applying for summer research internships, eventually landing one the summer after her sophomore year at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where she explored neurological and cognitive diseases. The next summer she won a spot at Harvard University and studied the human papilloma family of viruses.

Both experiences convinced her that she wants to study infectious diseases, including viruses and parasites, with a focus on improving public health systems in developing countries. She credits her toughest biology course at Xavier for honing her interest.

“We would talk in class about viruses in every facet—how they replicate themselves, how they spread from cell to cell to human, how our health systems break that cycle and where they fall short, and how does the makeup of a virus impact sociology and immunology. We looked at it from an interdisciplinary perspective to see not only how things work, but how and why it matters.”

Her final summer stop would be Peru. As she was applying to grad schools in her senior year, she also was awarded a coveted Brueggeman Fellowship by Xavier’s Brueggeman Center for Dialogue. She wanted to research public health systems in a developing country, and the Brueggeman program, which sends students on independent research projects to locations around the world, was the perfect way to go. She was placed as an intern in the research lab of the National Institute of Health in Peru and stayed with the family of the institute’s director of public health.

Fiegen, who’s now enrolled in Harvard’s PhD program in virology, spent eight weeks in Peru. Most days, she was in the lab, catching a shuttle bus to the institute south of the city. With more than a third of its population living in poverty, Peru is still struggling to improve its public health. Fiegen’s lab work helped define where outbreaks of disease were occurring so that treatment and prevention could be focused on those areas.

She did manage to get out of the research lab for a while, spending a few days with the family touring famous sites like Machu Picchu. But she also was able to visit a remote public health center in the Amazon region for a close-up look at the deplorable conditions researchers there must tolerate. She had to go in by plane to reach the old outpost, where she observed their work testing human tissue samples and water and food supplies for the region.

“They had very poor facilities,” Fiegen says. “They were in the middle of the Amazon where it’s above 80 to 90 degrees year-round and extremely humid, and most of the buildings did not have air conditioning or an autoclave to sterilize equipment. They had to hand-wash with soap, water and bleach.

“A major concern for me is the safety of these people risking their lives to work with these agents, and then they do all this work, but it’s not accurate because of all these compromising factors.”

For her fellowship, she explored the connections between basic science, clinical applications and public health. What she learned is embedded in the work she’s doing today at Harvard.

“How healthy your population is, is a product of the public health systems. My time in Peru drove home how connected these concepts are. That was really sobering—the people trying so hard to take care of the public health of the entire province, and they’re so severely compromised by the resources available.”

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