The University of Arizona

Awards Fuel UA Environmental Virus Research

By Shelley Littin, University Communications | August 2, 2012
UA postdoctoral researcher Aziza Kamel of Egypt studies environmental viruses to protect humans and crops from contaminated water sources.
UA postdoctoral researcher Aziza Kamel of Egypt studies environmental viruses to protect humans and crops from contaminated water sources.

Doctoral candidate Sidrotun Naim and post-doctoral researcher Aziza Kamel have won prestigious awards from the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Programme. The awards are given to 15 women each year and will allow Naim and Kamel to pursue their groundbreaking research of environmental viruses.

UA researchers Aziza Kamel (left) and Sidrotun Naim were both recipients of prestigious UNESCO-L'Oréal fellowship awards, given to 15 women scientists each year.
UA researchers Aziza Kamel (left) and Sidrotun Naim were both recipients of prestigious UNESCO-L'Oréal fellowship awards, given to 15 women scientists each year.

The success and significance of two University of Arizona researchers' work has drawn the attention of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO.

A partnership between UNESCO and cosmetic company L’Oréal, the UNESCO- L’Oréal For Women in Science Programme gives 15 monetary awards to outstanding women scientists each year. Doctoral candidate Sidrotun Naim and post-doctoral researcher Aziza Kamel from the UA have won the prestigious awards.

A scientist for her people

“They said to me, ‘We cannot do anything, but please study this and help us.’”

Now a doctoral candidate in Kevin Fitzsimmons’ lab in the UA department of soil, water and environmental science, Sidrotun Naim is a native of Indonesia, a country that owes a substantial portion of its economic viability to shrimp aquaculture.

“We have about 20 diseases for shrimp. I witnessed how the farmers are very desperate, every time the diseases come. That’s what motivated me,” she said. “Maybe the most limiting factor in any aquaculture farm is disease.”

Naim knows firsthand the struggles of Indonesian aquaculture farmers: After obtaining her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from the Bandung Institute of Technology in Indonesia and her master’s degree in marine biology from the University of Queensland, Australia, Naim worked for the World Wildlife Fund to help rehabilitate shrimp farms in Indonesia.

Naim saw her people suffer from the effects of the economic crisis that came in the wake of the 2004 tsunami that struck Indonesia and decided to make finding solutions to shrimp diseases her primary focus.

“I started looking for shrimp disease research centers,” she said. Naim found her way to Donald Lightner’s lab in the UA department of veterinary science and microbiology, which is a world reference for shrimp diseases.

Naim came to the UA in 2009 as a Fulbright scholar sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and began studying a bacteria species called Vibrio harveyi, a relative of Vibrio cholerae, which causes cholera in humans.

With lab tests at the UA and field trials in Indonesia, Naim has found that polyculture, the practice of putting fish and shrimp in the same pond together, greatly reduces instances of bacterial disease in shrimp.

When farmers put a fish called Tilapia in the same pond as the shrimp, Naim said, “the disease is reduced compared to if there are shrimp only.”

Naim is studying the mechanisms by which Tilapia might reduce shrimp disease in the lab at the UA. “Tilapia is actually one of the toughest fish on Earth,” she said, speculating that the fish have some mechanism that helps protect them from bacterial disease, and by sharing the same water the shrimp are protected as well.

Naim completed a second master’s degree in environmental sciences at the UA in 2010 and hopes to obtain her third master’s degree in microbiology and pathobiology and a doctorate in environmental sciences in December.

Her study is also funded by the Schlumberger Foundation since 2010, which supports women in science and engineering.

The importance of Naim’s research to her country’s economy has not gone unnoticed: This year she became one of 15 women recipients of an award by the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Programme, which aims to support women scientists and engineers.

“It changed me a lot,” she said, “because of the community. We are all women, we are all scientists and engineers, and I feel like we strengthen each other.”

Naim said she feels inspired by the support she has received throughout her career. “It has motivated me,” she said. “I want to do good deeds through science and to motivate people, just as so many have motivated and supported me.”

After defending her thesis in December, Naim will use her award for a two-year fellowship studying shrimp viruses at Harvard Medical School and at the department of molecular biology at Princeton University.

“All viruses share similar characteristics. It doesn’t matter if they are in humans, in shrimps or in plants,” said Naim. If Naim can unravel the mechanisms by which viruses attack their marine hosts, she also will have helped to shed light on the mechanisms by which human viruses attack us.

Protecting us from viral disease

Water flows through Aziza Kamel’s homeland in Egypt, providing essential nourishment to the people and irrigation for the crops. But when contaminated by human or animal viruses, the same life-giving resource turns deadly dangerous.

Kamel knows this. Currently a post-doctoral researcher also in the UA department of soil, water and environmental sciences, she has devoted her life to studying environmental viruses.

Kamel received her doctorate from the University of Bourgogne, France, in 2009, and is a researcher at the environmental virology lab at the National Research Center in Cairo, Egypt, where she has been studying viral contamination of the environment through different water sources.

“The contamination of water resources is a real problem in Egypt,” Kamel said. “Especially contamination from waste water.”

“The problem is the contamination of the environment by human and animal viruses,” said Kamel. “It is a mixing environment, where human and animal waste exists and where humans and animals drink.”

The combined human and animal use of water leads to a mixture of human and animal viral strains, Kamel explained: “Some human and animal viruses can exchange gene segments, leading to the development of new viral strains.”

Some viral strains transmitted by the environment can exchange gene segments through genetic phenomena known as reassortment and recombination, which can lead to the appearance of new strains that are a mixture of the parent strains, Kamel said.

Some of these new viruses can be transmitted to humans, unless the mechanisms of their development can be understood and prevented.

Kamel said she has gained valuable experience in her field with the research she has done in Charles Gerba’s lab at the UA.

“I wanted to have a postdoc experience in the field of my research at home in Egypt,” said Kamel, “to have more experience in the field of environmental microbiology, and to be able, when I go back, to apply the techniques that I learned here.”

Kamel said she hopes to work with other cities in Egypt to develop methods of water treatment for water that will be used to irrigate crops to prevent viruses from contaminating crops and infecting humans.

With the support of the L’Oréal-UNESCO award, Kamel will continue her groundbreaking research at a university that specializes in respiratory viruses, especially influenza viruses, at the end of this year.

“The contamination of the environment by these viruses is important to study,” she said. “Viruses can also lead to big problems.”

Kamel’s research of environmental viruses may enable her to prevent plague in the future.