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New Mexico State University Department of Biology doctorate student Katherine Young received the 2015 Fulbright Fellowship to study dengue virus in Borneo (NMSU courtesy photo) NOV15
New Mexico State University Department of Biology doctorate student Katherine Young received the 2015 Fulbright Fellowship to study dengue virus in Borneo (NMSU courtesy photo) NOV15

NMSU biology student receives Fulbright Fellowship for virus research

New Mexico State University student Katherine Young was offered the prestigious Fulbright Fellowship to study dengue virus in Borneo.

The U.S. Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board announced Young’s award this summer. As a Fulbright Fellow, she will receive funding to support her travel and research next year in Borneo, an island in southeast Asia.

“I am incredibly honored to have received this fellowship, and I could not be more proud to have been chosen to represent the United States in Malaysia,” Young said. “I am looking forward to working with the laboratory of Dr. David Perera at The Universiti of Malaysia Sarawak and especially the local people of Sarawak.”

The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and is designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.

Dengue fever is a mosquito-borne tropical disease with no commercially available vaccine. The disease is transmitted by several species of mosquito and can develop into a life-threatening case of dengue hemorrhagic fever.

Young, who is working on her doctorate in the NMSU Department of Biology, will study how dengue virus circulates among mosquitoes and non-human primates in the forests of Borneo.

She has been able to build on her coursework in virology and emerging infectious diseases to study the viral infection of mosquitoes under the mentorship of Kathryn A. Hanley, associate professor of biology at NMSU.

Hanley, who holds a doctorate in biology and post-doctoral training in molecular virology, said Young has what it takes to conduct fieldwork in the forests of Borneo.

“Katie came to my lab having completed a two-year stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya, so I knew that she had the stamina and mental fortitude to conduct fieldwork in a remote jungle,” Hanley said. “Borneo is undergoing unprecedented changes in the ways that its forests are being used and changed, and Katie’s work will offer a window into the effects of these changes on disease vectors, and thus on human disease risk.”

In Hanley’s lab, Young has developed expertise in a variety of methodologies ranging from virus culture to molecular taxonomy, which allows her to identify distinct mosquito species.

The Fulbright scholarship will allow Young to better understand the emergence of sylvatic dengue virus from non-human primate hosts in Malaysia into humans in Malaysia by studying the effects of landscape change on the diversity and abundance of mosquito species in Borneo.

Mark Andersen, former associate professor of wildlife in the NMSU Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Ecology and the founding Dean of the Honors College at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, worked closely with Young and said she has a rare opportunity.

“Katie has a really exciting project,” Andersen said. “She has the unique opportunity to watch an emerging tropical disease evolve, and basically to ‘catch it in the act.’”

Young hopes to use her Fulbright experience as an important steppingstone to a better understanding of the ecology of sylvatic dengue transmission and as the cornerstone of her dissertation on her pathway to a career in academia.

NMSU undergraduate and graduate students interested in pursuing a Fulbright Fellowship may contact Honors College Associate Dean Timothy Ketelaar at ketelaar@nmsu.edu

Author:  Kristie Garcia – NMSU

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