As an undergraduate working in malaria researcher Dr. Dyann Wirth’s lab at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Mr. Caleb Irvine was curious why malaria transmission was on the uptick in the Thiès region of Senegal, in spite of efforts to control the disease there. In July 2014, he traveled there to study the DNA of the most common malaria parasite in the region and uncovered important new information about recent genetic changes in the parasite population. In recognition of his efforts, he was recently honored with a Harvard College award called the Hoopes Prize.
[Photo: Mr. Caleb Irvine (center) conducted important malaria research in Dr. Dyann Wirth’s lab at Harvard Chan School while he was a Harvard undergraduate. Drs. Rachel Daniels (left) and Sarah Volkman (right) served as his mentors.]
Mr. Irvine was following up on the Wirth lab’s recent finding of a rebound in genetic diversity in the most prevalent malaria parasite in the region, Plasmodium falciparum — a potentially worrisome trend that suggested problems with malaria control efforts in Thiès.
But Mr. Irvine’s finding — that the parasite’s genetic diversity had declined following its rebound — “provided new evidence showing that fluctuations in genetic diversity might not necessarily indicate a problem with malaria control efforts,” explained Dr. Rachel Daniels, research scientist in the department of immunology and infectious diseases, who served as a mentor to Mr. Irvine in the Wirth lab along with principal research scientist Dr. Sarah Volkman. “Caleb’s results raised interesting questions that we hope to further explore about how parasite populations may change in response to pressure — both from the natural environment and human interventions.”
Mr. Irvine’s novel approaches and observations “will likely result in a major study,” said Dr. Wirth, Richard Pearson Strong Professor of Infectious Diseases and chair of the department of immunology and infectious diseases, who nominated Mr. Irvine for the prize. “In addition, the data Caleb produced will be used by the Ministry of Health in Senegal to aid its malaria elimination efforts. He has made profound contributions to efforts to translate basic research into immediate, real-world applications.”
The Hoopes Prize recognizes outstanding scholarly work or research. This year, 64 Harvard College seniors, including Mr. Irvine, received the $4,000 prize.
Mr. Irvine, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in molecular and cellular biology and a secondary in global health and health policy, now plans to spend a few years as a post-bachelor fellow at the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle, and is hoping the experience will help him decide whether to go into global health research long-term or apply to medical school with a focus on global health and infectious diseases. In the meantime, he is grateful for having had the opportunity to conduct research in the Wirth lab. “It feels great to know that my work is going to have an impact for such an important cause,” he said.