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International Programs Student Trip Reports
In keeping with Texas A&M’s Vision 2020 objective of graduating students with a global perspective based on global experiences, the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences provides a limited number of travel stipends to students to help them gain international work/study experiences. The following travel reports give an overview of what our students learned while living, working, and studying abroad.
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Ecuador - Rachel Curtis

Mario Grijalva
Dr. Mario Grijalva, the inspirational man behind it all.

My research focuses on the eco-epidemiology of Chagas disease, caused by a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi, and transmitted through the feces of insects known as kissing bugs.  I study where kissing bugs occur, how frequently they are carrying the parasite, and which strain-types of the parasite occurs in different locations.  Though Chagas disease is increasingly being studied in the US.  The best training facilities for studying this disease system are found in South America.  I was fortunate enough to find a well-established training program in Ecuador that is run by Dr. Mario Grijalva of Ohio University.

Hanging from a tree
Hanging from a tree, another day's work in the name of science!
I was even more fortunate to discover that I am in a very supportive graduate program.  With financial assistance from my advisor, Department, the College, and the Self-Directed Study Abroad Scholarship, a dream trip was made possible.  Here are a few (stream-of-consciousness) highlights from the month-long training.



For part of the training, I was a part of the mammalogy team that was live-trapping squirrels, opossums, and other medium-sized arboreal mammals.  We were setting traps along a line transect in the forest.  Every 50 meters, we marked a point as the central location and placed 4 traps somewhere around that point.  Tricky part was that the traps had to be up in the trees, lashed to branches.  Even trickier was that, to get to any tree, you had to scramble up at least 10 feet of an almost vertical incline.  And because we needed to find braches sturdy enough to hold not only a cage, but potentially an angry squirrel, sometimes we climbed up the dirt wall as far as 100 or 150 feet.  Once arriving to an appropriately sized tree, you check to make sure that the tree is in fact alive (climbing a dead tree on the side of a slope with potential for a 100 foot fall is not such a bright idea, so we like to make sure they are alive enough to support us!).

Trapped rat
One of the rats that was trapped.

Then, climb the tree until you reach an adequate branch.  While precariously straddling the branch, you then reach to place the trap (without it closing on your fingers) and tie it tightly so that it will not fall, even with an escape-artist squirrel in it.  Repeat this process 100 times, and this is the effort we put in today.  With about 10 of us working together, it still took about 8 hours.

Walking back
Walking back after a long morning and afternoon of trapping.

Luckily, this is a type of forest known as tropical dry forest.  Dry forests generally have many less creepy crawly, bitey-stingy things that the tropical wet or rain forests.  Although…we did run into (literally) many spider webs along the way.  I believe these are a type of golden orb-weavers, and they have incredibly strong silk.

The webs are generally found wherever you were hoping there was an opening for you to scale the dirt wall.  Oh, and the spiders are about as big as a half-dollar, and not really anything that you would like to have crawling around on you.  So, not only do you have to continuously watch your footing to be sure you're not going to slip down the slope, but you must also constantly look in front and above to be sure that you're not going to tangle yourself in a web.  And where there is one, there are generally 3 or 4 others lying in wait as you try to detour around them.  The worst is when you run into a web but don't see the spider; there is a moment of panic while you frantically look around to see if the spider made its way onto your person.

Other than the spiders, I didn't see any snakes or nasty spiny little caterpillars.  There are not many plants with spines or urticating hairs.  The only other life I saw were a few small lizards (anoles) and lots of insects (mostly flies, wasps, ants).


A ranchera, the bumpiest way to go in Ecuador.

Here the kissing bugs are called chinchurros.  The entomology team has the duty of travelling to a few different communities over the course several weeks.  Each day, they load up a few pick-up trucks and a ranchera with 20-30 people.  The band of chinchurro hunters then spends 1-2 hours riding along dusty, bumpy roads to reach rural communities.  From the main-base of a local small school (think about 10-20 students small), teams spread out to educate, inspect, and eliminate.  Each team consists of 2 students and 2 SNEM men.  The SNEM men are employees of the Ministry of Health who usually work in the Servicio Nacional de Eliminación de Malaria (National Malaria Eradication Service), but that join Dr. Grijalva's team each summer to also work on Chagas disease vector control.   Teams travel to houses that are scattered across the landscape, connected by winding footpaths and occasionally, by dirt roads.  The houses are not anywhere near up to the standards that you would expect to find in US, with only basic electricity and plumbing in most cases.  There is no air-conditioning, no nicely tiled floors and painted walls, no lavish furnishings, rarely a radio, let-alone a television.

Small house
A small house in rural Ecuador

These are some of the poorest-of-the-poor, and they invite us in with the warmth and kindness of close friends and offer us fruit from their trees.  They listen attentively as the SNEM men explain what we are looking for and why the chinchurro is dangerous to have in your house.   They tell us that they see the chinchurros in their houses, in their beds, on the walls.  They are interested in learning more, and the SNEM men have answers.  After an introduction, the team conducts a thorough inspection of the house.  With flashlights in hand, we scour the cracks in the mud walls, the ceilings, and the dirt floors for the bugs.  Outside, we search the walls, chicken nests, and eves of the house.  When a chinchurro is discovered, it is captured and placed in a small container.  The container is carefully labeled and stored to be taken back to the lab for analysis of the bug.  Teams visit the same houses for three consecutive days of searching.   On the third day after the last search, we carry all the belongings out of the house and the SNEM men suit-up in their gas masks and backpack-style pesticide applicators.  They spray the house from top to bottom, inside and out, and we wait outside with the family until it is safe to replace their possessions.  Each team visits from 2-5 houses a day, depending upon how far the houses are.  It's a good hike to some of the houses, and the sun is unrelenting.  Meeting the families, watching the diligence of the SNEM men, and seeing the mountains on all sides made this a beautiful day.

Mountain vista
The beautiful vista of the mountains in the afternoon light.

Lunch helper!

School building
The school building that also served as the cafeteria.

Since the main "base camp" is about 1 hour of bumpy dirt roads from the city, we eat breakfast and lunch in the cafeteria building of the local school.  There are only 28 children in the school, and the community if very poor, so it is probably unlike any school cafeteria you can imagine: a roof, a few tables and chairs, a large stove, and a sink that doesn't work.  Kitchen duty rotates from participant to participant, and we each spend one day helping Pato, the cook, with the daily duties.

So, it was a 4am wakeup today, with a 4:30 departure to the community.  Between Pato, two local women, and I, we prepared fried pork, mashed potatoes, and scrambled eggs for breakfast.  Then I washed dishes, a lot of dishes.  Which wasn't so bad, because it was washing outside under the sun, and I could watch the goings-on of the community and the other participants going about their duties.  Part of the challenge was that the kitchen needed the water as much as the builders needed the water to mix cement and wet the bricks.  So, we took turns alternating the limited water supply between running to the dish-washing area and the building area.

New community center
The building site of the new community center.

Just as I finished washing the dished from breakfast, it was time to start cooking lunch.  It was a lot of cooking, but it was nice to be in the position to see all the participants come in throughout the day and appreciate that there was food on the table to replenish their energy.  Since I come from a large (and hungry) family, it was a bit like being at home!


My main reason for attending this training course was to learn the procedures for processing kissing bugs and mammals.  They have established techniques that I would like to use in our Chagas research at A&M, and so I came to learn the processes.  There was a laboratory in the field and a laboratory in Quito.

In the field, there was a makeshift BSL2-equipped lab, with all the precautions and equipment necessary to dissect bugs and start parasite cultures.  Bugs were carefully dissected, with antenna, legs, wings, and bodies all placed in individual, carefully-labeled tubes for transport back to Quito.  A hindgut sample from each bug was taken for parasite culture, and we looked through the microscope to see if the bug was infected with the parasite.  In many cases, I peered through the microscope to see many wriggling trypanosomes on the slide.  Samples were placed in culture tubes so that the parasite could be further studied in the future.

Kissing bug
A blood-filled kissing bug nymph

In Quito, the laboratory facilities are located at the Center for Infectious Disease Research at Catholic University.  Parasite cultures are checked and transferred after returning from the field.  There is another check for parasites using the microscope, and positives are noted.  Also in the Center is the vivarium, where kissing bug colonies are kept for studying the life cycle, feeding requirements, and general habits of the kissing bugs.  All these studies are adding to the knowledge of kissing bug behaviors that may increase the transmission of the parasite to humans and other mammals.  I spent two weeks in the lab in Quito, and I was able to have a wide variety of experiences that have already influenced how I am conducting procedures in our lab at Texas A&M.

Free days!

One weekend, I and some other participants and staff took a day-trip to Otavalo, a city with a well-known artesian market.  There were many stalls filled with crafts and clothing to meander through.  It was a great place to pick up gifts for those at home, and although I'm too much of a push-over to be able to even think about bargaining, everything was priced low enough that it was an efficient place to buy everything in one stop for low prices.  On the way back from Otavalo, we also stopped in Cotacachi, a city well-known for well-made leather goods.  Blocks and blocks of stores were filled with shoes, boots, coats, jackets, purses, wallets, and just about anything else you could ever imagine being made of leather.

One foot in each hemisphere
With one foot in each hemisphere.

My final day was my opportunity to visit the equator.  I was taken by one of the Ecuadorian researchers to the small equator-town that boasts a large monument and a yellow line that runs along where the equator is said to be.  We also stopped at a nearby location that claims to have the actual "GIS-certified" equator.  Regardless of which one you visit, there is a lot to be seen.  We ate traditional Ecuadorian snacks and spent the day chatting about research, Chagas disease, and culture.  It was an excellent ending to a wonderful trip.

Though there are so many more stories to tell and experiences to share, I can't fit them all here.  I can only recommend that you go and find out!

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