An infection biologist gets a home-grown reminder of the importance of her research.
Guest contributor Maiara Severo
About nine months ago, I got a text message. It was my sister, asking me if I knew anything about a disease called Zika. It made sense — I have a PhD in medical entomology. As we texted, my sister seemed alarmed. There were a few rumors that Zika was spreading into the north east of Brazil – where she and I are from and where she is still based – but no one really knew what to think or do about it. She asked me if she needed to take precautions of any kind. I told her not to worry too much, just avoid being out around dawn time, and to wear long pants, socks and perhaps a cardigan whenever possible. I couldn’t tell her to simply use repellents. She was trying to get pregnant.
A few weeks later, I got the news: I’d be an auntie! My sister was carrying her first child, my parents’ first grandkid. I was happy, then scared. My home country has long been battling the very aggressive Aedes aegypti mosquito, which we have learned to hate but live with. Now, it meant my sister could give birth to a sick baby, and that was an unbearable thought. Not just because this was my family, but because I’m a scientist working with another mosquito-borne disease that has killed and still kills many children; malaria. There was another problem: I work over 5,000 miles away.
Over the last few months, I have thought, day and night, about my sister. I’ve been angry, sad, frustrated, hopeless. I’ve struggled with the fact that, although capable of helping my family and country, I have remained here, spending countless hours in the laboratory, pursuing my research studies and trying to advance my academic career. I’m embarrassed I haven’t done more than read scientific manuscripts, advise my sister as needed, and follow the news like everybody else.
I finally had relief when, about four months ago, I got to see an ultrasound of my nephew — yes, a boy! He’s healthy. He’s developed a perfect sized brain, and he looks so cute I couldn’t stop myself from crying.
As I packed my bag full of gifts and arranged for some mosquito traps, I reflected on the most frustrating moment of my career. Will the decade I’ve spent in a laboratory ever bring relief to people like my sister? Is it my calling as a scientist to move back, despite Brazil’s economic crisis? Is this my chance to actually do something? Those questions and more kept me awake for my whole flight home.
It was only after I held my nephew for the first time that I realised the obvious. Moving back is only one of the many ways that I can help my sister. Explaining to a neighbor how to properly dispose bottles and containers to protect the area from mosquitoes, and talking to a high-schooler about a career in science, are other ways I contributed. On top of all that, of course, I hope that my research findings will one day help to fight infectious diseases like Zika.
Just like science has broadened my understanding of life, this personal adventure has put things into perspective. I now see that my experiments are important, but only a small portion of my role as a scientist. Interacting with people, inspiring new generations and communicating science are just as worthwhile. These things are needed so that science can cross more and more borders, and reach the people that need it the most.
Maiara Severo was born and raised in Aracaju, Brazil, and earned her PhD at the University of California, Riverside, United States, studying host-pathogen interactions. She now works at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, Germany, and is a firm believer in the use of science to the betterment of society.