Tick Dragging and Water Filtration—Not Your Typical Spring Break  

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Global Health Alternative Spring Break class gives students hands-on infectious disease research experience in Kenya 

What did you do over spring break? “Tick dragging and water filtration” is not an answer you’ll hear often, but 11 students in Michael von Fricken’s GCH 491/GCH 591 Public Health Study Abroad course did just that in Laikipia, Kenya. 

Participants included undergraduate and graduate students and ranged from those hoping to confirm their chosen career path to those looking to dig deeper into the global health path they are on. Students studying community health, science, bioengineering, environmental science, and biodefense participated in the course subtitled “Research Methods of Vector-borne Disease Surveillance.” Additionally, two PhD students from the Institute of Primate Research participated. 

“I wanted to figure out what I wanted to do with my career. Infectious diseases interested me and I wanted to see what was out there and how it translated into a career,” said Marcara Wright, a sophomore a Global and Community Health major. 

Abby Lilak and Marcara Wright working on a water filtration system
Abby Lilak and Marcara Wright working on a water filtration system

Students studied mosquito and tick vector-borne diseases and water filtration of East Africa. Their work contributed to ongoing research that von Fricken, assistant professor in Mason’s Department of Global and Community Health, is participating in, with partners in Kenya (Mpala Research Centre) and at the Smithsonian Institution Global Health Program. Students took part in a Department of Defense-funded effort to collect leeches, ticks, water, and soil samples from shared waterholes on ecologically protected grasslands using a One Health approach. By sampling at the human/wildlife/environmental interface, students were learning firsthand about transmission pathways for emerging zoonotic diseases while participating in ongoing surveillance efforts being carried out in Kenya. 

“This was my first time tick dragging [collecting ticks by dragging a cloth through the environment]. We went to a watering hole and we dragged for ticks. I didn’t know that ticks could be so small, and it was hard to find them,” said Wright. “We were looking for ticks to analyze them to determine how they are affecting the population and to look for any emerging diseases that might be coming up through the ticks to the human population. This is important to try to get ahead of any diseases so that they will not affect the population so harshly.” 

von Fricken Study Abroad
Students spent eight days camping and working on protected Kenyan conservation ranches.

Students spent eight days camping and working on protected Kenyan conservation ranches being trained in field and lab techniques specific to surveillance of vector-borne diseases (such as African tick-bite fever and East Coast fever) and bacteria and viruses that might be circulating in waterholes where multiple domestic and wildlife species congregate. They examined the biological, social, and environmental risk factors of disease exposure in an international setting.  

“This work is meant to give a quick response to monitoring what is present in environments and how that can relate to other animals or communities that interact animals or these environments,” said Abby Lilak, a first-year student in the master of science in global and community health program. “For example, if there is a large number of pathogens found in the ticks, providing findings and additional education about pathogens to pastoralists would be a way of informing populations which may be affected.” 

In addition to looking for diseases in ticks, they also took water samples in order to look for bacteria or viruses that may transfer from the water to animals, and eventually to humans. 

“Before the trip I attended trainings at the Naval Medical Research Center, so in Kenya I [led] the water filtration project. I was very fortunate to have three Mason students who decided to learn about the filtration system and help me record samples, run filtrations, and troubleshoot challenges,” Lilak continued. “Within our trip, each of them could efficiently run water filtrations by themselves. Having a lovely experience with equally eager students while being able to have time to laugh and joke was one of my favorite memories.” 

Having the opportunity to work directly in an international setting improved students’ cultural competency, helped build their research confidence, and reiterated the importance of understanding the drivers behind emerging diseases.  

Abby Lilak with a water filtration lab
Abby Lilak with a water filtration system.

“I learned a lot of technical skills and the ability to collaborate and adapt together as a group. Having an environment of students and professionals all with a passion for infectious disease allows you to challenge your perceptions and gain deeper understanding by interacting with each other,” Lilak said. 

Students also appreciated being able to explore the culture in Keyna outside of the lab. From the food to the Mt. Kenya Wildlife Conservancy, home to the endangered Mountain Bongo, students explored Kenya alongside local scientists, creating an opportunity for cross-cultural exchange.   

Von Fricken previously taught this alternate spring break course twice prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has been on hold for the past two years. Though the pre- and post-departure protocols are much more detailed than before the pandemic, von Fricken and his students were able to do similar global research work that they were doing in 2019. 

Though it wasn’t the typical spring break, students on the trip learned a lot and returned more energized to continue their studies. 

“All the work done during this trip is related to One Health, which is an approach that makes you look at the interconnectedness of animals, humans, and environment and how that pertains to health. In the future, I would like to return to East Africa and conduct surveillance work on infectious diseases with a strong One Health approach. This trip remotivated me to continue my career path,” said Lilak. 

“I definitely learned global health something I want to do for a living, and might even go for my master’s. I know now that I want to work with infectious diseases,” Wright said.