The Speaking of Your Research (SYR) series gives scientists a voice to discuss their own research. We welcome posts by animal researchers explaining the science and motives behind what they do. Contact us for more details.
I am a biologist. At heart, I have been a biologist ever since I can remember. Life, in its many forms, fascinates me and, even though my interests aren’t confined to biology (or sciences, for that matter), it was always very clear to me that I would pursue the task of trying to understand life a little bit better.
As a kid, my most vivid memories go back to those Saturday mornings when I use to wake up at 7 a.m. to turn on the TV. First, there were cartoons to watch, but – at around 10 a.m. – the “Wildlife” shows would start: documentaries from the BBC Wildlife or from the National Geographic Channel. David Attenborough’s or Jacques Cousteau’s voices were my companions, as I flew above mountains or dived into the depths of the oceans, watching the most bizarre animals or the most fascinating flowers. There was a whole diversity of life around me that I was relentlessly drawn to. In my mind, I had this naïve idea that I wanted to be the next David Attenborough. I felt like it must be great just to grab a camera and follow animals around just to catch that perfect moment! But life got in the way… Not because I didn’t have opportunities to follow my dreams, but because the dream itself changed.
When I was eleven, one of my cousins checked into the hospital, quite suddenly, with what would later be diagnosed with measles encephalitis. During the early stages, I wasn’t completely aware of what was happening. Indeed, not even the doctors knew what was happening. When he was finally diagnosed, it was already too late for the interferon treatment. After years struggling with the disease, he fell into a coma and eventually could no longer struggle. Looking back, my change of field of interest started there. Suddenly, I started thinking about diseases, about what causes them and how incredibly little we know about it all. I started looking at microorganisms in a whole different way: I started realising I wanted to know more about what makes them tick and how to stop that ticking. So, by the 7th grade, I already had my mind settled on Biology.
The path since there has been one of seizing opportunities: I finished college (Biology with a minor in Evolution and Development) and I went on to take my MSc in Applied Microbiology. By the beginning of the second semester, I saw an ad for a trainee position studying the neurological sequelae of cerebral malaria. For me, it couldn’t get more interesting than that!
When I joined the lab, the first thing I had to do was read. Among all those articles, the first thing that struck me (having little knowledge of this before) was the numbers: according to the World Health Organization’s World Malaria Report 2013, there are around 200 million new cases of malaria and around 700 000 deaths per year, the majority of which (around 500 000) are children under the age of 5 years. I was shocked by these figures and, most importantly, by the ones related to the funding of anti-malarial research and preventive measures. And even though these numbers are finally starting to rise, they are still very much below what would be desirable.
And so it was that, at 21 years of age, I did my first in vivo experiment, using rodent models of malaria. The moral challenge wasn’t easy and the decision wasn’t taken lightly. But, while I regard all living things as worthy of respect, I cannot disregard the good that comes from the use of animal models. I had to look at the ugly effects of what malaria does to people and especially to children. And I had to look at them in mice; in the mice I was handling, observing and taking care of every day. I had to look at all that and still make a decision. It is emotionally hard, but I truly think that using animal models is the only way we have of really studying this disease (and so many others!). The ethical decision that I make every day has become less difficult to make when I see it as the best chance we have of saving the lives at stake here: the millions infected every year, by a disease Jeffrey Sachs described as a disease of “poverty”.
The lesson I was taught on my very first day was: “the first thing to keep in mind is the animal’s distress. If it is distressed, not only will it be bad for the animal but it will also be bad for you, because your experiment will be jeopardized”. Four years have gone by, and I have passed it on to the students I’ve trained as well, because I truly believe this should be the golden-rule for everyone doing this work!
From cerebral malaria I moved on to other fields of research, screening compound libraries for new anti-malarials, and integrating the search for an anti-malarial vaccine. Now, the goal is there all the time, in front of my eyes! But I can only do what I do, because others before me have studied the biological processes I want to tackle. And they have done so using animal models.
Inês S. Albuquerque, MSc