Human Science Alumnus Earns PhD, Researches Viral Transmission
May 5, 2020 – Dr. Paul Jacob “Jake” Bueno de Mesquita (NHS’12), a human science alumnus, recently earned his PhD in environmental health science at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.
For his doctoral research, which he did in Dr. Don Milton’s Public Health Aerobiology, Virology, and Exhaled Breath Biomarker (PHAB) Lab, Bueno de Mesquita examined the airborne spread of influenza in indoor settings.
“The bulk of my doctoral studies focused on quantifying the risk of influenza transmission through indoor air and the role that ventilation and other controls could play in reducing risk,” said Bueno de Mesquita, who is now working on post-doctoral research in Milton’s lab. “We have studied influenza transmission in experimental settings, and most recently we have been studying respiratory infection contagiousness in the dormitories at the University of Maryland campus.”
Focus on Flu
While completing a fellowship with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention a few years ago, Bueno de Mesquita developed his focus on the transmission of respiratory infections, particularly influenza.
“I realized how little was known about influenza transmission risk and how this knowledge gap directly hindered public health officials from designing preparedness plans,” he said. “For example, is it wise to usher large populations through a single clinic site to receive a vaccine when a superspreader could come through and infect a lot of people? To what extent is airborne transmission driving epidemics, versus larger droplet spray and direct or surface contact?”
Bueno de Mesquita said researchers have been perplexed for a long time about certain aspects of influenza.
“For over 100 years researchers have been studying influenza – known widely as the common killer, responsible for between 250,000 and 500,000 deaths each year – and experts have yet to reach a clear understanding of which modes of transmission pose the most risk and how epidemics are driven,” he said. “Even the laboratory and epidemiologic methods to study these questions have not been able to provide enough clear information. So, trying to do for COVID-19 in a matter of months what we haven’t been able to do for influenza after a century of study poses challenges.”
Bueno de Mesquita said Milton’s lab, which has been focusing on common coronaviruses, influenza, and various other respiratory viruses, is now using similar methods to study the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is the cause of COVID-19. In particular, the team is utilizing the Gesundheit-II (G-II), “a unique and powerful bioaerosol collection device,” which Milton developed.
“The G-II efficiently collects exhaled breath while people breathe normally into its cone,” he said. ‘The G-II separates the particles that may contain SARS-CoV-2 virus into larger particles more likely to settle to the floor quickly, and smaller particles more likely to remain suspended in the air.”
Using the technology, the researchers will ask volunteers with COVID-19 to give a sample while wearing a mask (homemade or surgical) and while not wearing one.
“We hope these efforts will help clarify the contribution of airborne transmission, particularly in high-exposure settings like hospitals, and assist with immediate infection control measures,” he said. “As far as supporting eventual relaxation of some physical distancing measures and the return to more normal societal function, our findings could help to estimate risk in poorly ventilated spaces found in many schools, dormitories, workplaces, and in public transit.”
The work could also help “inform strategies that could be employed like ventilation, air sterilization, and mask use,” said Bueno de Mesquita, who indicated the research will involve other activities including blood sampling to help understand COVID-19 immune response and support vaccine and countermeasure development.
“The addition of the pandemic virus to our workflow was a no-brainer, but has come with some challenges,” he said. “We have increased our level of occupational health safety that has included the addition of powered air-purifying-respirators.”
To achieve this work, the lab has trained additional volunteers and purchased more equipment, all the while gaining approvals from the Institutional Biosafety Committee and Institutional Review Board and grappling with diminished retailer supplies of research materials and personal protective equipment.
Reflecting on the collective response of his colleagues and the entire health workforce, Bueno de Mesquita said, “These colleagues and the entire public health service delivery workforce, along with health care providers and the many people keeping our communities afloat during this time, are such heroes.”
Addressing ‘Pressing Societal Challenges’
Bueno de Mesquita said the courses he took while at Georgetown and the professors he met on the Hilltop have left a lasting impression.
“I feel very grateful for my education at Georgetown, which I believe prepared me well for what I have found thus far to be a career of meaningful public health research and practice,” he said, noting Dr. Allan Angerio, Dr. Yong-Sik Bong, Dr. Stephen Byers, Professor Phil Hagan, Dr. Pablo Irusta, Dr. Bernhard Liese, Professor Joan Riley, Dr. Rosemary Sokas, and Dr. Alex Theos.
“I have enjoyed and cherished the continued guidance and mentorship from Rosie through the years,” he said. “I am truly appreciative for the thoughtful and life-changing experience – fostered by the Georgetown NHS, the Human Science Program, and all the faculty – which shepherded me into my current public health field.”
Bueno de Mesquita added that the institution’s Jesuit values have provided an important frame for his work.
“I am also thankful for the holistic Jesuit education with strong elements of personal reflection and identity development through engagement with spiritual, philosophical, political, and social justice ideas in a community of intellectually vibrant and fun-loving student peers, faculty, and staff,” he said.
“All of these experiences helped propel me towards my current activities in the field of applied environmental health that aims to addresses pressing societal challenges,” Bueno de Mesquita said.