Posted by Deven P-Shah on Mar 10, 2016
After getting her education from Harvard in biochemical sciences, Eva was pulled by the revolution that was going on that time in Nicaragua.
Eva: At that point they were really trying to create a new society and put health and education at the front. And I wanted to see whether I could use my scientific training in some ways. So I ended up going and connecting with an organization that took volunteers to Nicaragua.
Eva described that as a humbling and frightening experience as the training she had wasn’t helping with problem she had to solve for soldiers suffering with vitamin A deficiency and infectious diseases.
At the same time, Eva felt connected with people and problems there. Eva embarked on a journey of understanding agents that cause infectious diseases and how to act upon them; it also became her mission to cultivate sustainable structures for building scientific capabilities in developing countries.
While trying to answer the first challenge of how to make molecular biology applicable and relevant to conditions in the South Africa and other developing countries, Eva got opportunity to learn and use Polymearse Chain Reaction (PCR) right when it was being discovered. The PCR technique made is possible to identify unique DNA sequence of any organism.
Eva: The idea is, if you are looking for a pathogen, like tuberculosis or cholera or malaria or dengue virus in a sample from somebody that is infected, instead of growing up large quantities of this infectious pathogen, which can be very tricky and dangerous, you can just identify the DNA for that pathogen.
Eva: So the very first time we wanted to do this, we were able to actually diagnose this terrible parasitic disease called Leishmaniasis, which was a huge problem in Nicaragua. Leishmaniasis is usually found in the jungles and the forests. But since they were fighting the war against the Contras, the kids were in the army and in these areas and were getting infected and were coming back into the cities and then there was whole new disease epidemiology that they have not seen before that needed to be diagnosed and treated. So what we were able to do was to take a little sample from some of the patients and then apply this technique. But then there was no water and no electricity. So what we were able to do was to create those three different temperatures by using beakers of water and Bunsen burners and thermometer and ice to regulate the temperature. And we were able to diagnose and unequivocally prove that the patients had been infected with Leishmania. And it was this incredible moment because it was the first time that anyone in the country had ever seen DNA or has been able to work with it. And here we were taking this cutting edge and really complex technique and breaking it down and to be able to actually do it in a context where it was actually useful and critical. It actually became the national method for diagnosis right after that. So that was a really exciting transformation which was also a eureka moment for me. I realized that you could really make science applicable and impactful in the rest of the world.
It’s a touching journey of striking balance between keeping up at the cutting edge of new research while advancing her career on one hand while also opening up options to put that to use especially for countries in the South Africa and Americas. Eva founded a non-profit for the later - Sustainable Sciences Institute (SSI).
How do you survive and thrive while going through grind of the academic ladder, applying for grants, publishing work that is required to sustain career in the academic world? Eva uses the overriding drive to use it all to make a difference in lives of the people that could benefit from the new findings. Another ingredient to the drive is surrounding her with synergy of people passionate about helping others.
The full transcript of the call and also audio recording is available on the Awakin Call page for Eva Harris.
Eva: The truth is, basic science is where it all starts. When you have discoveries in the clinical or applied arena, they almost invariably come from discovery twenty years earlier in the pure basic science filed. It is extremely important to have that continuance.
Eva: I also think it is incredibly important to have public funding and public sector outcomes for science. For instance, other than basic science derivation and discovery, there is also the support of capacity to roll it out. It is not nearly as sexy and not nearly as profit making, but it is incredibly important.
Eva: Just to go back to the last example of preparedness for new outbreaks and pandemics in Nicaragua for instance, there are a lot of people making diagnostics and make the point of care dipsticks that see the pathogen as they come in, but then no one can afford it. And it exists but then it is marketed at a price point that no public sector laboratories, or even us as an academia supporting our study in Nicaragua, we cannot afford that test. It is absurd to have the profit motive driving something, which is then only marketed in private clinics and actually has the roll out or the impact in the public sector or reference laboratories because it is too expensive, even though it does not cost that much to make it. We recently recreated an existing diagnostic for essentially pennies because it is being sold at $6- $10 a test. So all this effort to recreate it, but one has to because these kind of things need to be for public good. And the capacity, what I call scientific capacity building, which is to create the human infrastructure, as we now have in Nicaragua after 25 - 30 years. But nobody wants to fund that. I have been through so many different organizations.
What a journey of expanding the reach of science and research in a sustainable way!