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Bitten by the science bug

PROFILE Irritating pests like mosquitos and ticks occupy much of Olivia Wesula Lwande’s time at Umeå University.

Olivia Wesula Lwande is a Department of Clinical Microbiology researcher who is working hard to stop mosquitos and ticks from spreading infectious diseases that affect the entire world.

"The drive to perform research keeps me going especially when trying to find solutions that will alleviate poverty and improve the health of communities in developing countries," says the Kenyan researcher. "Mosquito and tick-borne viruses cause huge health and economic problems with livestock bans in some areas. I want to be a part of adding knowledge that in some small way will better the lives of those affected."

Stopping the spread of viruses

Olivia's passion for science began early on, leading to Bachelor of Science studies and eventually volunteer work at the United States Army Medical Research Unit based in Kenya. That experience piqued her interest in emerging infectious diseases. Her Master's degree resulted from a joint-collaboration between the Institute of Tropical Medicine and Infectious Diseases, JKUAT, and the Nagasaki University Institute of Tropical Medicine (NUITM). Olivia obtained her PhD from the University of Pretoria in South Africa, with her thesis on tick-borne viruses.

When Umeå University advertised a postdoctoral position for someone with knowledge of mosquito-borne viruses, Olivia applied and was accepted in 2014. Today she works closely with collaborators from the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) and the National Veterinary Institute (SVA) to stop the spread of such viruses.

This is a growing challenge due to people travelling more than ever before. Mosquitos can be carried in used tires, airline containers and holiday caravans, says Olivia and the viruses are spreading far and fast. The Zika virus, for example, started in Uganda and emerged in South America. The West Nile virus was introduced to the United States in 1999.

Infectious disease affects the entire globe. If we help people in developing countries, the western world will be safe and I think people are starting to understand this

"Infectious disease affects the entire globe," says Olivia. "If we help people in developing countries, the western world will be safe and I think people are starting to understand this."

Field studies

The densely forested areas around Umeå University in northern Sweden provide plenty of mosquito and tick samples for Olivia's research, which involves identifying different species of mosquitos; screening the mosquitos for viruses; gathering data; and developing a model to see whether mosquitos in the Nordic areas can be vectors capable of spreading disease.

"There are up to 50 species of mosquitoes in Sweden and our current research has identified a new species that is a vector of West Nile virus," says Olivia. "We have also identified mosquitoes carrying Sindbis virus and Inkoo virus in northern Sweden."

Fifty species is a modest amount compared to tropical places like Kenya, where there is more than triple that amount. Yet as Olivia points out, "We don't know what Swedish mosquitos are capable of doing."

Prevention is the ultimate solution when it comes to stopping the viruses spread by blood-sucking mosquitos. At the same time, vaccine trials continue in the efforts to combat Zika and other mosquito-borne viruses. "The challenge is to develop a vaccine that covers all virus mutations," says Olivia, adding that other methods such as the sterile insect technique have been used in South America.

Snowmobiling and dancing

Coming to Umeå University was a big move for Olivia and a cultural change after living in the former British colony of Kenya where titles and formalities matter more. "I like that it's less hierarchal and more open here because it makes people more comfortable about sharing ideas," she says.

Olivia also appreciates the opportunities for travel and training that have come with the position, the state-of-the-art facilities for her research (in cooperation with FOI for vector experiments) and the teambuilding activities that include everything from snowmobiling and camping to discussions on how to improve the work environment. She's also getting a lot of exposure for her research.

After work, Olivia might be found practicing with a local folkdance group. "We meet in the evenings, dance and talk. It's good to be in contact with different people with their own networks and maybe meet up and cook together."

Traditional Swedish food, which focuses largely on potatoes, is similar to the Kenyan diet, she says, but the weather and the people provide a sharp contrast to Africa.

"Swedes are quiet and Kenyans are extroverts," Olivia says laughing. Learning Swedish is a challenge too. "It's a 'svårt språk' (difficult language), but I'm trying," she says.

Olivia Wesula Luande

Born in western Kenya.
Has a PhD from the University of Pretoria, South Africa.
At the Umeå University since 2015.
Researched infectious diseases in Kenya, Somaliland, Japan, South Africa and Sweden.
Current research focuses on mosquito-borne transmitted diseases in humans and animals.