As the XXXI Olympic Games open in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Friday, Aug. 5, the world will tune in to watch the athletes compete to win medals for their countries. But the looming side story of Rio is the mosquitoes and the Zika virus that they could possibly transmit to the visiting athletes and spectators.
Some top athletes have chosen to forego the Olympics this year due to Zika concerns. 2007 Morgan High graduate and Regional Sterling Scholar winner, Christopher Roundy, is currently working on the forefront of Zika research as a PhD student at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston.
In July, Roundy traveled to Salvador, Brazil, an area “where they have been affected by Zika.” He explained, “I work with scientists there to study local mosquitoes and their behavior. The goal of my research is to better understand factors that influence how mosquito-borne viruses, like Zika, spread through a human population.”
Roundy’s journey from the science labs of Morgan High to the frontlines of the Zika virus is fascinating and demonstrates how a dedicated student can translate his or her educational opportunities at Morgan High into a career that affects the world.
Roundy, son of Kelly Roundy and Michael Roundy, moved to Morgan as he was beginning his freshman year of high school. His mom related, “The transition was difficult for him after being raised in the military for 16 years and attending very diverse schools throughout the world, but Chris knew what he needed to learn and found opportunities to participate in different programs and develop his talents and skills in many areas.”
In high school, Roundy was very involved playing on the soccer team, sprinting on the track team, and participating in Academic Decathlon, several other clubs, and the Sterling Scholar program.
“My favorite teachers at MHS were Mr. Floyd, Mr. Mowery, and Mrs. Morrison,” Roundy shared in an email as he prepared to depart for Brazil. “It was clear that all three of them put a lot of effort into their work and truly cared about the students they taught. Mrs. Morrison made a big impact on me since she was involved with the Sterling Scholar Program and Academic Decathlon Team. She was always pushing those of us involved in these activities to be our best.
“I had three different biology courses from Mr. Mowery that really prepared me for my biology courses in college. The smaller courses at MHS helped me get more personal attention from teachers and allowed me to be a more active learner. I was also able to juggle my school work with sports and involvement with clubs, something that may have been more difficult at a larger high school,” Roundy concluded.
After winning the regional Science Sterling Scholar, Roundy was awarded a full-tuition scholarship to Westminster College, where he was accepted into the honors program and studied biology. “I started college with the intention of going to medical school,” Roundy explained, “but I ended up falling in love with global health and became fascinated by emerging infectious diseases. One professor in particular, Dr. Han Kim, drove me to consider scientific research ‘beyond the bench.’ In the classroom and during training in Uganda and Thailand, he taught me a lot of public health skills that have been useful to this day.”
After graduating from Westminster, Roundy continued his education at Tulane University in New Orleans in a Master of Science in Public Health (MSPH) program, where he studied tropical medicine.
His coursework focused on infectious diseases and how they spread. He also had the opportunity to work in two labs at Tulane—“one studying local mosquito populations and the other studying the interaction between dengue virus and Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that transmits the dengue virus.” Roundy explained and recalled. “I really enjoyed the opportunity to do both lab work and field work.”
After Tulane, Roundy began his PhD program in Galveston, Texas. He is beginning his third year in the Human Pathophysiology and Translation Medicine program at UTMB, where he works with Dr. Weaver “studying Zika and other mosquito-borne viruses like chikungunya and dengue.”
Roundy details: “My research focuses on the mosquitoes that spread these viruses, Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus. In the lab, we artificially infect mosquitoes with Zika to determine how well these mosquitoes are able to transmit the virus and factors that may affect transmission. This work is done in containment facilities at UTMB so there is no risk of a mosquito escaping. I am able to do this lab work in conjunction with field studies, which is a fortunate opportunity and allows me to study the big picture of mosquito-borne viruses. In the field I collect mosquitoes and can determine factors such as their age and blood feeding patterns.”
After finishing his PhD in two or three years, Roundy would like to “continue research in the transmission of emerging mosquito-borne viruses.
“This work is such an intricate puzzle with pieces of global health, ecology, virology, human disease and other fields. There is never a dull moment and there are always interesting questions to be asked,” he explained.
Kelly Roundy credits her son’s success to his “humility and appreciation for education. He really respects teachers and has continued to respect them at every level.”
Roundy shared the following information for Morgan residents about Zika. “Zika is a mosquito-borne virus related to dengue, west Nile, and yellow fever. In most people it causes mild symptoms like fever, rash, aches, and eye redness that only last a few days,” Roundy explained.
He continued saying, “Many people can actually be infected and not develop any symptoms. If a pregnant women is infected, however, there is a chance that her baby will develop microcephaly, a condition in which the infant’s head does not develop normally and is smaller than average. This also affects the child’s brain and can result in vision problems, hearing loss, and developmental delays.”
According to Roundy, the mosquitoes that transmit Zika are not found in northern Utah. However, we do have the mosquitoes that transmit West Nile, so people should wear bug repellent if they will be outdoors, especially around dusk.
“Because of the particular risk posed to pregnant women, any woman who is pregnant or hoping to become pregnant in the near future should check the CDC website for guidance if they will be traveling to Central America, South America or the Caribbean. Evidence suggests that Zika can also be sexually transmitted, so men that travel to these countries should exercise extra precaution when they return to prevent possibly infecting someone in this way,” concluded Roundy.