Colombian virologist leverages fellowship to fight infectious diseases in Latin America
Juan David Ramírez, a postdoc in molecular parasitology at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, was named a Pew Latin American Fellow in June. After the two-year fellowship, Ramírez plans to return to his native Colombia to help fight his country's endemic parasites.
What sparked your interest in parasites?
I come from a country with many endemic tropical diseases. Many people in my family had malaria. One had Chagas' disease. I became really interested in infectious diseases, particularly those caused by parasites. Luckily my teachers in high school encouraged my love of microbiology, and I decided to study it as an undergraduate at the University of the Andes in Bogotá.
What made you pursue a graduate degree?
During my bachelor's, I developed a molecular test for diagnosis of Chagas' disease. When I finished that, I did a master's examining the link between genetic diversity and clinical outcomes. Only two drugs are available to treat Chagas' disease. My adviser, collaborators and I found that most of the parasites (Trypanosoma cruzi) were resistant to one of the two, and developed a test to determine which drug should be used in each patient. Our results helped to create a guide for treatment of the disease in Colombia. I want to do similar work on other parasites.
Describe your graduate experience.
My adviser was supportive and let me do anything I wanted. I was an author on 18 studies on the molecular epidemiology of parasitic diseases in journals such as PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases and Acta Tropica. We were in a good situation — we had close contact with patients and clinical metrics of the disease. I also had the opportunity to spend a year at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. I brought parasite samples from humans, reservoirs and insect vectors in Colombia and explored the genetic diversity and reproductive mechanism of Trypanosoma.
Eighteen publications seems like a lot.
It was. I won the national science award as a result. I owe a lot to my supportive adviser, but I was quite focused on publications, serving as primary author on 12 studies while also providing samples or analysing data for collaborations. As long as I had interesting results, I pushed my adviser to read and correct the manuscript I wrote so that we could submit for publication.
How did you secure a postdoc at the NIH?
While I was doing my PhD, the Latin American Congress of Parasitology convened in Bogotá, There, I met my current adviser, Michael Grigg. He had seen my work on Trypanosoma markers and liked it, and was doing similar work in Toxoplasma. I asked about the possibility of coming to the NIH to do a postdoc, and e-mailed him when I finished my PhD. In April last year, I started a postdoc on Leishmania and Giardia.
Describe your postdoc.
It is awesome. In Bogotá, where I did my masters and PhD, we had restrictions on resources, equipment and technology. Here, the sky is the limit. I do not have to worry about not having access to a sequencer.
What does the Pew award mean to you?
I am the second Colombian in history to get the award and that is important to me. Research in South America is focused largely in Brazil, Chile and Argentina. Other countries have talented researchers but do not get many opportunities. The award is also important because it provides funds if I want to return to Colombia to start my own lab after two years here.
Will you return to Colombia?
Yes. I was productive in Colombia as a graduate student and got research funded by the European Commission. I think I can still do that. I want to help Colombian science to be better appreciated and to do good work that will help to persuade the government to invest more in science. There are many other parasites I want to explore. I want to do work that has an impact on the health of my country.
Interview by Virginia Gewin
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Gewin, V. Turning point: Juan David Ramírez. Nature 514, 131 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nj7520-131a