ASM Career Development Grant Helps Foster Collaborations in Zimbabwe

Jan. 3, 2019

Dr. Nicolette Zhou is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington. She studies ways to improve environmental sampling techniques for waterborne pathogens. She shares her experience in Zimbabwe, where she was able to meet people at the University of Zimbabwe and the Ministry of Health and Child Care, and learn more about diseases of high importance for the country.  

What first attracted you to science?

As a native Seattle-ite, I dreamt of being an environmental lawyer as a small child. However, as I progressed in school and had the opportunity to build large structures with K’nex, learn about the diversity of microbial life all around us that constantly impacts us, and explore the stars in astronomy club, my focus switched to engineering and science. I earned my BS in chemical engineering with the plan to do environmental engineering for graduate school. I did a summer research experience where I took environmental samples from the Santa Monica pier each day and monitored for E. coli and fecal coliforms. This exposure to the microbial realm sealed the deal on my plan to focus on environmental engineering during my Ph.D. I studied the removal of trace organic contaminants during the biological activated sludge portion of wastewater treatment. I had a lot of catching up to do with only one introduction to biology course taken during my undergraduate studies, but I made it through and have loved the microbial world ever since.

What is your research about?

My current research focuses on improving environmental sampling techniques for waterborne pathogens in the Environmental and Occupational Health Microbiology Laboratory at the University of Washington. I am working on a multi-institutional project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which seeks to improve poliovirus environmental surveillance by developing the bag-mediated filtration system (BMFS). The BMFS enables in-field gravity filtration to process large sample volumes of wastewater. Additionally, the kit fits within a backpack for easy transport to and from hard-to-reach sampling locations. Also, with BMFS development, a device was created to elute ViroCap filters prior to further concentration and analysis. This device is biologically enclosed, manually powered, and low-cost. These features make the BMFS a viable option for environmental surveillance in locations with limited resources. The BMFS resulted in improved poliovirus detection in ongoing field studies, and supplementary immunization activities have been conducted by the WHO in response to poliovirus detection in BMFS samples. Preliminary work has demonstrated the potential for use of the BMFS for environmental surveillance of a variety of other pathogens.

Congrats on getting the ASM Career Development Grant! What did you use the funding for and how did receiving the grant impact you? 

The ASM Career Development Grant for Postdoctoral Women has given me the opportunity to gain a better understanding of the communities I work with and to expand my collaborations. By visiting Zimbabwe in August 2018, I was able to meet with folks at the University of Zimbabwe and the Ministry of Health and Child Care. These meetings helped me understand the landscape in Zimbabwe, diseases of high importance, and ongoing research. The collection of BMFS samples and my new collaborations will all be included in future grant proposals that focus on pathogen environmental surveillance using the BMFS in Zimbabwe. The trip and ongoing grant proposal preparation will help my career and improve my understanding of what is required as a PI, though I am sure there is more to learn over the years.

What advice do you have for postdocs in research?

My main advice for postdocs would be to take advantage of as many opportunities as possible and to keep your options open. When finishing my Ph.D. and beginning my postdoc, there were many activities I was unsure about or nervous to try, teaching being the main one. I was fairly certain I did not want to do it and it was the reason I did not initially consider applying for faculty positions. However, during my postdoc, I had the opportunity to guest lecture in a few courses and each one became easier and less terrifying. I am now teaching a course on my own and I found that while it is still stressful, I really enjoy it and would like to continue doing it in my career. I would greatly encourage you to stretch yourself outside your comfort zone - whether that is teaching, networking, or grant writing.

Contributor: Dr. Nicolette Zhou got her Bachelor’s from the University of Alabama, Master’s and Ph.D. from the University of Washington. She is currently doing her postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Washington.

Author: ASM Careers

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