In the 1995 film "Outbreak," the characters are faced with a daunting task: to halt the spread of an Ebola-like virus taking hold in the fictional town of Cedar Creek, California. As an eight-year-old, Taryn McLaughlin watched the movie with a mix of “shock and awe.” This was the beginning of her lifelong passion for understanding infectious diseases.
Albeit over sensationalized, the movie is based loosely on a real scenario in 1989 where an Ebola-related virus was detected at a research facility in the United States. Since watching "Outbreak," McLaughlin's childhood fascination of infectious diseases and the science of containment has continued to evolve. Now a PhD candidate studying global health, she is focused on understanding pathogens, especially under real-world settings.
“As I started going through more of my education and training, I got more and more interested in global health and public health,” explains McLaughlin. “[Particularly] in terms of how diseases affect communities in different regions of the world disproportionately, and how that contributes to their general well-being. And so my interest switched away from things that cause outbreaks and that are bad and then die down, to problems that are more broad and contribute to global health disparity.”
This focus of her work recently brought her to Kisumu, Kenya, where McLaughlin has been studying the effects of co-infection of the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis and the parasitic worm Schistosoma mansoni. These worms are found in freshwater, and sense fatty acids produced by human skin glands in order to find their hosts. They enter humans by burrowing through the skin. Once inside a human, eggs from these worms can cause schistosomiasis, which involves symptoms such as abdominal pain and diarrhea.
S. mansoni is the most common species of worm to infect humans, yet it is classified as a Neglected Tropical Disease, meaning it generally affects low-income regions and historically has not received as much attention as other diseases. What’s more, people who are infected with these worms are often exposed to additional infectious diseases, making it difficult to tease apart the effects of each pathogen. For these reasons, McLaughlin is comparing the immune responses of people who are infected with M. tuberculosis and/or S. mansoni, as part of her PhD work through Emory University.
During her six-week stay in Kenya, McLaughlin also had the opportunity to help with other research projects. She found that conducting research in these rural and remote areas took a lot of collaboration and coordination, with teams of people collecting samples across the region. “It requires huge numbers of people to do a lot of leg work to complete these studies, whether that entails sending a team of people out to a different village every day for two years, or enlisting community health workers to translate,” she says. “There is a lot of emphasis on respect and relationships in the culture and that is evident in the way they do science.”
In terms of her work, she emphasizes that studying parasites in real-world settings is critical for truly understanding how they affect the human body, noting that humans do not live like mice in isolated and pristine laboratory settings. “We live our lives in messy worlds and so the reality is that most people who have tuberculosis or worms also have something else, and you have to think about how that contributes to the overall state of the human,” McLaughlin says.
While she continues her PhD work to tease apart to intricacies of co-infection in real-world settings, McLaughlin also participates in competitions simulating real-world problems. Along with a team of friends, she won the 2018 Intramural Emory Global Health Case Competition, where participants were given one week to find a solution to the outbreak of a hypothetical infectious disease at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar in 2022.
Over the past few years, McLaughlin has also become more involved as a AAAS Member, learning from other scientists through the discussion forums. “In particular, I really love the Women in STEM subcommunity at AAAS,” she says. “I really like seeing women support women in science, and have all of these secondary and tertiary pursuits in their scientific endeavours.”
McLaughlin’s own scientific endeavours may one day evolve away from the lab. Once she completes her PhD, she is considering becoming a medical science liaison for a biotechnology company. This route appeals to her because, “It straddles a R&D team, a clinical team, and sales,” she says. “I want to stay adjacent to the research, but I don’t necessarily have to have my hands on pipettes anymore.”
The focus of her work could also shift to another infectious disease.
“While I love parasites, essentially every infectious organism could peak my curiosity and inspire the amount of devotion I currently have to these worms,” McLaughlin says.