The African Studies Program is excited to introduce Cynthia Howard, a short-term scholar, joining us from her masters of philosophy (MPhil) program at the University of Ghana, where she studies molecular cell biology of Infectious Disease program. Her work explores micro-parasites harbor by bat ectoparasites in Ghana. At UW, she is working with Prof. Tony Goldberg where she is using DNA barcoding techniques to identify bat fly species and virus discovery pipeline to detect viruses in bat ectoparasites from Ghana, and Prof. Gregg Mittman where she is learning medical history and anthropology and exploring the history of infectious diseases in West Africa.

Tell us more about what brought you to Madison and your current research?

First of all, I am very excited to be here in Madison, thanks to my advisors Prof. Tony Goldberg and Prof. Gregg Mitman for giving me the opportunity. I came to Madison to research bat ectoparasites and I will be using Next-Generation sequencing techniques and a virus discovery pipeline to detect pathogens in these ectoparasites. My current research aims at detecting and characterizing microparasites in ectoparasites of bats. As most of us know, several studies have detected pathogens in bats which highlights their role as reservoirs of pathogenic viruses. Since ectoparasites live and feed on bats, my research seeks to determine if these ectoparasites can maintain pathogens in bat colonies or harbor bat-associated parasites.

Cynthia, your research is fascinating. Can you explain more about micro-parasites and how it adds to the field of Infectious Diseases?

Thanks a lot, I am glad to hear that my research is fascinating because most people ask me why am I studying bat flies; there are more important diseases affecting people. And my simple answer is that the world is gradually changing and 60-75% of known and emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic. There is a need to identify the origin of pathogens to control and prevent them from causing diseases.

Microparasites are mostly referred to as viruses, bacteria, protozoa, and fungi that can multiply within a host. It adds to the field of infectious diseases such that these are parasites that are of major public health concern. Almost all the pathogens now being studied are microparasites and they are harmful to human health. Researching how these microparasites invade the immune system or cause diseases can help find ways to curtail the spread of diseases. Also, how they can cross the species barrier and infect humans are of major public health concern especially in the field of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases.

How do you think your science background adds to African History methods?

I think my science background adds to African History methods in that I can explore the history of diseases in Africa using scientific methods/ techniques. Science for me goes beyond the lab and it is not just being in the lab and conducting experiments, I believe that my background in science, gives me an edge in terms of diversity where I can use my scientific knowledge, collect historical data and conduct experiments on these data. There are so many diseases affecting Africans, a classic example was during the Ebola epidemic of 2014 in West Africa where researchers detected the virus in fruit bats. All through, people have relied on bats as a source of protein how then can they be a reservoir of Ebola? This is where my diversity and background in science comes in, I can conduct oral interviews and also collect samples for laboratory testing if there is a need. I do love science and the diversity in my career.

What are your long-term research goals?

My long-term research goals are first to get a Ph.D. and become an infectious disease scientist and/ public health researcher, with that I can collaborate with experts in the field to do bigger projects.

I want to focus on the area of zoonotic diseases and explore or identify the origin of pathogens because detecting the source of an infection is key to controlling that infection. I want to understand how zoonotic transmission of diseases occurs and what can be done to control pathogens of zoonotic origins. I am also interested in exploring the history of infectious diseases in West Africa specifically Liberia and understand the role humans play in the spread of zoonotic pathogens.

I would love to be in academia and continue researching to be able to give back to my country (Liberia). In West Africa, Liberia is one of the countries with the lowest number of scientists/researchers and one of my long-term goals is to set up a research institution or center of excellence in Liberia where we can train the next generation of Liberian scientists and open a science hub where we can encourage and educate high school students during career day programs about the importance of STEM education.

In addition to your exceptional work in the sciences, what do you like to do for fun? Any part of Madison that stands out to you?

Outside sciences, I love singing and dancing even though I am not a good dancer. I love listening to music and learning new lyrics, music calms me down when I am stressed, and dancing for me is a part of exercising.

I also love cooking most especially my Liberian dishes because I am a good chef.

I love Madison, it is a very cool and peaceful state and everything is so well organized but the part of Madison that stands out to me is the Wisconsin State Capitol. When I visited the capitol, I was in awe from the look of the building to the tiles and decorations….. wow!!!!! That building is a work of art. I love lying on the floor and viewing the inner part of the building and the top floors, that place is very beautiful.

Produced by Carly Lucas