By RACHEL MANGINI
Chemistry major Yara Elbeshbishi helped investigators look for a malaria vaccine during her summer internship at the Naval Medical Research Center at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Her internship is was hands-on as it gets. Under the mentorship of principal investigator, Lt. Cdr. Dr. Bradley Hickey, Elbeshbishi got to see a real-life clinical trial in action, sometimes arriving as early as 4:30 in the morning to help immunize trial subjects.
“The malaria trial is an active human trial where subjects are bitten by mosquitoes in effort to help find a vaccine for malaria,” Elbeshbishi says.
In the tropics, the danger of malaria is real. The parasite, a protozoan called plasmodium, is carried by infected mosquitoes and afflicts 500 to 600 million people per year. It kills more than one million people a year, many of whom are young children.
The malaria research Elbeshbishi has the opportunity to participate in would have a great impact on global public health. It is also of great importance to the U.S. military. According to the Naval Research Center, “more person-days were lost among U.S. military personnel due to malaria than to bullets during every military campaign fought in malaria-endemic regions during the 20th century.”
The aims of the navy’s malaria research is to find a vaccine that would kill the malaria parasite while it is still contained within a victim’s liver, which is during the first few days of an active infection. If not contained, the infection moves into the blood stream. The navy is also researching vaccines that would work on the infection at this later stage to help curb the severity of the symptoms.
The Naval Research Enterprise Internship Program is highly competitive, accepting only 200 undergraduates each year. Elbeshbishi was selected from thousands of applicants based on her letters of recommendation, coursework, experience and her transcript.
Her coursework at Pitt-Bradford was invaluable preparation for the challenges of her internship. “I tie in things I learned from my chemistry and upper-level courses to basic and background information in the trial, which has helped me tremendously this summer,” she says.
Born and raised in Egypt, Elbeshbishi completed high school in Maryland where her passion for chemistry began. Of her major she says, “what I love most about chemistry is how challenging it can be, how it keeps me on my toes, how it is always teaching me something every day and the rewarding feeling I get from studying something I love.”
Extracurricular involvement in the university has given Elbeshbishi a boost as well. This fall she will enter her second year as Student Government Association president. “The responsibilities I have as student government president at Pitt-Bradford prepared me for the professional part of my career.”
But her involvement in the university and the community doesn’t stop there. During her tenure here she has been a student ambassador for admissions, a peer mentor for the Freshman Seminar Program, a resident advisor, and a member of the Student Government Senate, the community service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega, the swim team, and the Bio-Chem Club.
Having the opportunity to take on myriad responsibilities at Pitt-Bradford has been good preparation for the rigorous demands of medical research work. In addition to her day-to-day work on the malaria trial, Elbeshbishi’s internship requires her to complete and present an individual research project. She explains that her “project is centered on leukapheresis —a standard laboratory procedure that separates white blood cells from samples of blood, which is a significant part of the trial.”
It is hard work, but she enjoys it. “Between the trial and working on my project, 40 hours a week fly by.”
Her education and extracurricular involvement at Pitt-Bradford are just one in a series of stepping stones leading to a career in public health. Next, Elbeshbishi plans to pursue a doctorate in the field. She is researching graduate schools and studying for the GRE.
“Ten years down the road,” she says, “I hope to be working to develop health policies for a nonprofit or a hospital for global health or international health.”
Considering the far-reaching aspect of the clinical trial she is working on, Elbeshbishi is already well on her way toward using her education and experience to make an impact on global health.