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COLLEGE STATION, TX - Texas A&M PhD student Rachel Curtis
developed a way to educate the public while enlisting their help in
tracking an emerging disease that threatens wildlife and humans.
Chagas disease is caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi and can
cause a variety of symptoms and can even lead to sudden death.
Currently, no cure exists. The parasite is transferred among
humans-or animals-by "kissing bugs", named after their tendency to
bite around the mouth.
Curtis, who is also a National Science Foundation Graduate
Research Fellow and a Texas A&M University College of
Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) Merit Fellow,
is a member of the epidemiology research team in Dr. Sarah
Hamer's laboratory at the CVM.
As a first-year PhD student, Curtis traveled to Chicago in July
for the opportunity to present her ongoing research at the American
Association of Veterinary Parasitologists (AAVP) annual meeting.
Even though it was her first major oral presentation, she won first
place in the Best Student Presentation competition among other
graduate students at the event.
"Rachel's success is a tribute to her hard work and dedication,
and the support from her faculty mentor," said Dr. Robert
Burghardt, Acting Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies
at the CVM. "Our graduate students and faculty are exceptional, and
committed to the excellence that defines our research
"I was happy to be there to hear her presentation and to support
her," said Hamer, Curtis's advisor and assistant professor in the
Department of Veterinary Integrative Biosciences (VIBS) at the CVM.
"I'm very fortunate that she's a part of our team."
Curtis tracks this disease in nature to determine the risk of
becoming infected with Chagas disease. A better understanding of
this disease could lead to interventions that break the infection
cycle and reduce the disease risk.
"As of January first of 2013, it became a notifiable disease, so
if a person or a veterinarian diagnoses Chagas disease in a patient
they have to report it to the state," Curtis said. "Our efforts are
augmenting the Texas Department of State Health Services' ability
to track this disease."
To track Chagas disease, Curtis has to collect blood samples,
trap wild animals alive-and catch kissing bugs. Initially, she
struggled to catch enough bugs because they were hard to find. She
turned to the community for help.
"As soon as we started talking to land owners and the public,
they'd say 'oh yeah, I had one of those in my house yesterday' or
'I found some in my barn' or 'they were in my dog kennel'," Hamer
Curtis developed the Citizen's Science initiative to educate the
public about Chagas disease and ask the public to collect these
hard-to-find bugs. On the Hamer laboratory Web site, Curtis
provides the public with educational pamphlets, pictures, and
"Rachel really started this initiative up," said Hamer. "The
public has been really eager to send in these bugs to her. She's
had almost 600 bugs submitted to her this way."
"Although she is very early in her dissertation research, her
studies on Chagas disease in the southern United States are already
yielding new insights into maintenance of the Chagas parasite in
nature," said Dr. Evelyn Tiffany-Castiglioni, associate dean for
undergraduate education and professor and VIBS department head.
"I'm grateful for all the financial support that the college,
the department, and Dr. Hamer have given," Curtis said. "Without
all of the financial resources there would have been no way for the
research or for the award to be possible."
For more information about the Texas A&M College of
Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, please visit our
website at vetmed.tamu.edu or join us on Facebook.
Angela G. Clendenin
Director, Communications & Public Relations
Ofc - (979) 862-2675
Cell - (979) 739-5718
Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas 77843
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