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Xavier Magazine

The World is a Big Classroom

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.”

Categories
Xavier Magazine

The World is a Big Classroom

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.”

Categories
Xavier Magazine

Northern Exposure

The academic highlight of Shane Hughes’ college career began, of all places, on Craig’s List. For sale: 1986 Subaru GL, manual transmission, 218,000 miles, $600.

Perfect. It met his two requirements—four-wheel drive and within his college-student budget. He bought it, changed the oil and transmission fluid, flushed the radiator, replaced the outer tie rods, adjusted the engine timing, replaced the timing belt, rebuilt the carburetor, and added four new tires and a windshield.

Then, in a car that was built three years before he was born and had more than 200,000 miles on it, Hughes set out—alone—for the Yukon Territory at the edge of the Arctic Circle to meet and study the native Han people of the First Nation tribes. The trip was part of a Brueggeman Fellowship, which sends students on research projects around the world. He was curious to know how the Han were preserving their culture, and the only way to find out was to go there and ask them.

So he put his rebuilt car in gear on June 21, and took off, making his way through the Klondike highways into Alaska and the Yukon.

It was an adventure only a college student could—or probably would—embark upon. Hughes, a senior majoring in history and theology, dined on canned food, a lot of beans and the best Oreo cookies ever. When the front wheel bearings on the Subaru went bad, he changed them in the parking lot of a Napa Auto Parts store in Montana.

The car soon became his home. Around 1:00 a.m. somewhere in South Dakota, the thunder and lightning drove Hughes from his tent into the refuge of his car. While he was dozing off, he felt a small tugging on his pajama legs. Convinced it was a mouse, he zipped up his sleeping bag and flicked on the flashlight. But the creature was gone. He didn’t really mind that the mouse, like himself, was using his car to get out of the rain. But he didn’t want it suddenly scrambling up his shins. So the next day, he wore his pant legs tucked into his socks. It didn’t matter. He never saw the little guy again.

The mouse was the first of many wild creatures Hughes encountered, along with bison, elk, caribou, moose and grizzly bears. But research was the main objective, so Hughes’ first stop was Dawson City, Alaska. The Han are an indigenous people who relied on hunting and fishing, mostly caribou and salmon, before gold rush prospectors and settlers cut the trees, thinned the game and salmon runs, and built cities where Han people now live.

“I was disappointed in what I found,” he says. “I started at the cultural center. But everything seemed to go downhill from there. The language is all but gone. There are only two people left who speak it fluently in Dawson.”

He interviewed about 15 Han people. None live the way their ancestors did but instead live in modern houses, work jobs and buy their food at the grocery store. “There is a desire to preserve tradition, but it’s now more of an acceptance that it’s going away and not coming back,” he says. “The older generation I talked to, I got the sense their culture is going away and they’re sad.”

He put 10,000 miles on the Subaru, and except for a broken exhaust pipe that roared the whole way home, the car was intact. So was he, if not a bit thinner and sleep-deprived.

It took Hughes a while to realize the extent of what he’d done. “While reading about the Han in Cincinnati, they seemed so distant. And then getting there and realizing these people actually exist and meeting them in person was really extraordinary.”

Now he catches himself thinking back to his days in the gold country, where the sun never sets and motorists usually find themselves alone on the limestone highways, wondering what delightful gift of nature will surprise them next.

“One time I had my windows down, and I came on a bear on the side of the road. I stopped. Suddenly he sits up really fast, and I rolled up the windows. But he was just rolling over.”

To Hughes’ relief, this wild creature stayed where he belonged—outside the car.

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