Wan Nurul Naszeerah - Gelephu Town, Sarpang District, Bhutan

Gelephu Town, Sarpang District, Bhutan

Located 10,000 feet above sea level, the Tiger’s Nest Monastery was certainly worth the hike. It is regarded as the birthplace of Buddhism in Bhutan and overlooks the spectacular Paro Valley.

Career goal: Wan will be returning to her native country, Brunei, and working with the Royal Brunei Armed Forces, Ministry of Defense upon completing her studies in the United States. She is interested in the intersection of environmental conservation and infectious diseases in the tropical Borneo Island (the island on which Brunei is located). Emerging tropical diseases – such as the knowlesi malaria – usually gain little attention from the local public health institutions as well as the general public. Caused by Plasmodium knowlesi, the newest kind of human malaria is a great example of how human encroachment and deforestation create opportunities for parasites to jump from an animal reservoir to a human host. Military personnel, whose training usually take place in pristine rainforests, are among the high-risk groups. However, having taken classes at Yale School of Public Health and recognizing the growing burden of non-communicable diseases in Brunei, she is also interested in obesity, mental health and disaster/injury epidemiology.

Internship outline: I had two goals prior to applying for summer research funding: 1) to garner malaria entomological skills from rural fieldwork and laboratory settings, and 2) to study Anopheles where large knowledge gap in malaria vector still exists. Fortunately, Yale School of Public Health has developed a strong relationship with health research institutions in Bhutan: Royal Institute of Health Sciences and University of Medical Sciences of Bhutan. Having received tremendous amount of support from mosquito-borne diseases and malaria scientists in New Haven, I decided to study the relative contribution of Anopheles species to malaria transmission in the malaria-endemic Sarpang district of Bhutan. For eleven weeks, I was mentored by Mr. Rinzin Namgay, an entomologist from the Vector-borne Diseases Control Program (VDCP), Ministry of Health. My study team and I utilized several trapping methodologies to assess the population dynamics of Anopheles in four study sites (located along the porous Bhutan-India border). Despite having to work from 6 in the evening to 6 in the morning, we managed to collect about eight Anopheles species and 1700 female Anopheline mosquitoes. Under the supervision of Dr. Sunil Parikh and Dr. Leonard Munstermann, I am currently continuing my analysis on these specimens at the Yale School of Public Health.

Value of experience: Life in Thimpu the capital city was generally modern – the radio played the latest American songs, a hip restaurant served an ‘Elvis Presley’ burger and many youths enjoyed submitting their English poems to the local newspaper. Located at least ten hours away from Thimpu was Gelephu town, which was my home away from home. Aside from the hot and humid climate, the most striking difference was the large Indian population (and hence, the availability of cheap, delicious Indian food) in Gelephu. While some Indians have settled in nearby Bhutanese villages, the majority commute daily from India for their jobs in the town. In fact, no identification card or passport was required to cross the border between Sarpang district (Bhutan) and Assam state (India): a truly porous border it was! It was through this first-hand experience that I begin to understand the socio-cultural context of malaria transmission in southern Bhutan. Aside from learning about Buddhism-based philosophies of the local community, adapting to low-technology solutions at work as well as the simple rural lifestyle has certainly humbled me and refined my outlook on global health research.

Best moment/experience: Traveling alone can be challenging despite having frequently done so as an international student. Thankfully, Bhutanese are so amiable – not only did I find  wonderful friends in the city and villages but I also found a “family” while I was in Gelephu. My colleagues, who were mostly much older than I am, gave me a Bhutanese nickname as well as regarded me as their zameen (daughter). Aside from being a wonderful support throughout the study, they have opened my eyes to the reality of global health leadership challenges: the well-being and morale of my study team is as important as the quality of collected research data.

Funding source: Down’s Fellowship

Wan Nurul Naszeerah