Doctoral student Caitlin Wolfe presents at global conference

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“It’s important for us as public health professionals to share the outcomes of our work. Public and global health research is great, and it is important, but what does it ultimately translate into and who is it ultimately serving?” said USF College of Public Health doctoral student Caitlin Wolfe.

Wolfe recently presented her research on schistosomiasis at the 16th Annual Unite for Sight Global Health & Innovation Conference at Yale University on April 13-14.

Doctoral candidate Caitlin Wolfe (Photo by Jorge Flores).

The conference is the world’s largest and leading global health and social entrepreneurship conference. With more than 2,000 professionals and students from all 50 states and more than 55 countries, the thought-leading conference convenes leaders, change-makers and participants from all sectors of global health, international development and social entrepreneurship.

The focus of her poster presentation was related to her dissertation work in Senegal that focuses on using remote sensing methods and high resolution satellite imagery to detect environmental habitat hotspots for the snail vectors that transmit schistosomiasis. Specifically, she discussed the methods they are currently using to analyze the WorldView-2 images that she received as part of a grant from the DigitalGlobe Foundation.

Schistosomiasis a neglected tropical disease because it tends to affect marginalized communities globally. Right now, the main control program against schistosomiasis is once or twice yearly treatment with Praziquantel, an anti-parasitic drug. This clears infection in most who receive treatment, but it offers no lasting protection against reinfection.

“This poster was more of a methods proof of concept, showing that we could use the image classification tool within ArcMap to accurately classify and identify different types of aquatic vegetation based on select previously sampled locations during my time on the ground in northern Senegal,” Wolfe said. “The next step is to determine what the unique spectral signatures are within specifically the submerged vegetation that is known to support higher densities of snails.”

Part of Wolfe’s ongoing research project in Senegal involves working with local communities to remove some of the aquatic vegetation at their water access sites to both reduce schistosomiasis risk and also to maintain better health of their waterways. She wants to make sure that they are targeting these interventions in the places where most of the snails are residing in order to maximize the impact.

“I hope that my research, ultimately, allows for more effective control and management of schistosomiasis risk in countries where this disease is endemic by enabling targeted disease vector management approaches to better maximize the impact of available resources,” she said.

Caitlin Wolfe out in the field in Senegal (Photo courtesy of Wolfe).

Wolfe first attended the Unite for Sight Global Health & Innovation Conference nine years ago.

“It was actually the first conference I ever attended, and I remember feeling like my brain was about to explode at the end of every day from excitement and all of the information I was taking in,” she said. “So it was very fulfilling to have the abstract I submitted accepted and return as a presenter this year.”

Wolfe said what she appreciates most about this particular conference is how it differs from some of the more research-focused conferences that public health professionals may be more familiar with.

“Research is certainly a component of this conference, but there is also a large focus on social impact and innovation pitches, so it’s really interesting to see how these two components meld together,” she said. “I also appreciate the platform this conference gives to students and young professionals to both showcase their research and also highlight their innovation pitches, and the format of the conference also facilitates getting expert feedback particularly on the social innovation pitches.”

The take-home messages Wolfe gathered from this conference were the importance of community connections and genuine, unbiased needs assessments to meet people where they are, understanding what they need and what their barriers to healthy living are, finding a way to bring your skills to the table, and accompanying those you’re working with on their problem-solving journey.

“It’s part of our job and our responsibility to make sure what we learn is applicable and available to those working on addressing the same problems we are so that we can all work together to improve the lives of others,” Wolfe said. “Attending conferences where we can highlight what we have been working on and get comments and feedback from our peers in the profession is a great first step towards achieving that.”

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Story by Caitlin Keough, USF College of Public Health