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Swine Flu Crusaders

Swine Flu Crusaders
Kelly Broussard (left) and Sami Miller in the lab in Brownsville.

When Sami Miller and Kelly Broussard decided to head down to the border last summer, they didn’t expect to end up in the middle of the global swine flu pandemic.

As participants in the college’s Public Health Internship Program, they knew they’d be spending the summer at the Brownsville regional campus of the UT School of Public Health. They knew the internships were being fully funded by the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL). And they knew they’d be working, somehow, on public health at the Texas/Mexico border. The hope, for both of them, was that they’d get to work with an infectious disease.

“I was 15 when I realized I wanted to work for the Centers for Disease Control,” says Broussard, a microbiology major from Austin. “You can’t really know in high school what that means, of course, but I thought working for the CDC would be the coolest thing in the world.”

For Miller, also a microbiology major from Austin, it was a high school class in medical microbiology and pathophysiology that turned her on to infectious diseases.

“That class changed my life,” she says. “When we read the novel Outbreak, which was about an outbreak of Ebola in the U.S., that was it for me. I’m not a risk taker. I don’t want to go bungee jumping or sky diving. But the diseases are so interesting, and they’re so different from each other, and have such different effects on the human body. You can study them your whole life and you’ll never be bored.”

An added bonus, for Miller and Broussard, was that in Brownsville they’d be working with Drs. Joseph McCormick and Susan Fisher-Hoch, who were among the world’s leading “disease detectives.” They’d done pioneering work in the study of, among other diseases, Ebola, Legionnaires’ Disease, Lassa fever, Crimean Congo Hemorrhagic Fever, and AIDS. As investigators at the CDC, they’d been in charge of the Biosafety Level 4 facility—the so-called “hot zone.”

“If you’re a public health nerd, which I am, they’re really kind of famous,” says Broussard.

Broussard, when she’d signed up to do the internship, hadn’t been told what project she’d be working on. Miller had been told she’d be working on tuberculosis. Upon arrival, they were immediately called upon to join the all-hands-on-deck effort to help the United States, and the world, stay one step ahead of the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus (“swine flu,” as it was known to the public).

“We were in the middle of what ended up being a pandemic,” says Miller, “and Brownsville was the first sentinel site set up by the National Institutes of Health to track the infection on the ground. They had so many samples coming into the lab, and I think it was useful to have us there in the lab processing samples and running tests on them.”

Miller and Broussard’s primary task was to perform laboratory tests on the samples that were coming in from the field from anyone who was exhibiting flu-like symptoms. Using a technique called real-time polymerase chain reaction (real time PCR), theyisolated and then replicated RNA sequences from the samples so that the specific genetic markers of H1N1, if they were present, could be identified.

The purpose was two-fold. They had to determine who had the new H1N1 virus, who simply had seasonal flu, and who didn’t have either. They also had to prepare the RNA samples so that other scientists, at Brownsville and elsewhere, could do further genetic analysis as well as search for broader patterns of infection, pathogenicity and epidemiology.

“It wasn’t a planned project,” says Fisher-Hoch, from Brownsville. “In fact, the brand-new test for the virus had only been set up a week before Sami and Kelly arrived, but they were up and running with it very fast. They learned quickly and with very little supervision. They did very well indeed.”

About halfway through the nine-week internship, Miller and Broussard began a second project, which involved a more thorough search for patterns in the batch of infected samples. They were interested, in particular, in comparing the virulence of the new influenza virus to that of the 1918 influenza virus, which killed more than 50 million people and infected roughly half a billion around the world.

“We looked for little molecules called cytokines,” says Broussard, “which are part of our immune systems and are considered good markers of how you’re reacting to an infection. We picked a few specific cytokines and compared the levels to similar data from the 1918 virus, which was also a strain of H1N1 influenza. We discovered what people had hoped, which was that it was not high-pathogenicity. People seemed to be recovering normally.”

Miller and Broussard also noted what appeared to be evidence that people who had recently been vaccinated for the regular seasonal flu were a little more prepared, immunologically, for the new H1N1 virus, and tended to recover more quickly.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from the whole internship, however, was that they’d been right all along to believe that they’d enjoy a career in studying infectious diseases. And that they had the right stuff to make a career of it.

“They treated us like adults, and expected us to be able to perform like adults, and we did,” says Broussard. “It was pretty exciting. The research that was going on there, beyond what we were doing with swine flu, was groundbreaking and high-tech and international. The intense amount of science going on was really impressive. It was hard to be there and not absorb some of it.”

Both Miller and Broussard, who are graduating in May, have applied to the Emerging Infectious Diseases (EID) Laboratory Fellowship Program sponsored by the APHL and the CDC. If they get the prestigious fellowship, they’ll spend a year either in Atlanta, in a lab at the CDC, or at one of the state health department laboratories throughout the country. After that, both women expect to go on to further study in the field of public health, and after that they hope to help save the world, one disease at a time.

“I hope to get that CDC fellowship,” says Miller. “I really want to get a Masters of Public Health. After that I want to get a Ph.D., and after that I’m not sure. It’s hard to know, because we have so many options. What I do know is that working with Dr. McCormick and Dr. Fisher-Hoch was a dream come true. It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t really happen to a lot of people our age.”

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Saturday, 18 September 2021

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