Alexandra Kulinkina is a PhD candidate in Environmental Health and Environmental Engineering in the Tufts Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Alexandra recently interned with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Bonn, Germany and contributed substantially to a report on waterborne diseases. The report can be accessed here. TIE sat down with Alexandra to learn a bit more about her journey and motivations:
What motivated you to enter this field of research? Please share a bit about your background and research interests before you came to Tufts.
I don’t remember having aspirations for a certain profession as a child. It was only in high school, when I read a book about a physician who encountered a mysterious disease that I considered that maybe I wanted to be an infectious disease doctor. When I enrolled at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), I chose biology/pre-med as my major. As I very quickly realized, I was absolutely terrible at biology. At WPI, the alternative options all ended in “engineering”. Because both my grandparents and my parents were civil engineers, I decided to give that a try. I fell in love with environmental engineering right away, especially water chemistry and water treatment design. After graduating from WPI, I began working as an environmental engineer at Woodard and Curran, a consulting company, assisting New England municipal clients with water and wastewater projects. I enjoyed the job but my curiosity about infectious diseases never waned as I began wondering about the role engineering plays in disease prevention. While WPI provided me with excellent technical and problem solving skills, I never saw my environmental engineering career in a health context. To pursue this curiosity, I eventually left my job and took a volunteer opportunity with the Uganda Village Project and subsequently entered the Tufts Environmental Health Master’s program. It took me 10 years since I read that book to realize that what I actually wanted to be is an infectious disease epidemiologist.
Tell us a bit about your role that you play in your field.
I think that because of my initial career as an environmental engineer I had a unique perspective on infectious diseases with an emphasis on their control through improved water and sanitation infrastructure. I am interested in all aspects of disease transmission, surveillance, and control, particularly those diseases related to water and the environment. I have just completed my PhD thesis at Tufts on Schistosomiasis, a tropical disease transmitted through skin contact with contaminated river water, in rural Ghana. While many epidemiologists who study schistosomiasis focus on increasing the provision of drug treatment to the affected populations, I have been focusing on the water contact patterns that drive schistosomiasis transmission in rural communities with a target of actually interrupting transmission by changing conditions that perpetuate high-risk water-related behaviors.
How has your time at Tufts shaped your research interests? Specifically what courses and professors have shaped them?
The first class that I took at Tufts (while still working as an environmental engineer and before entering the Master’s program full-time) was ‘Biology of Water and Health‘ taught by David Gute and Jeff Griffiths. It gave me a broad perspective on the role I could play as an environmental engineer in the area of public health. Since then, my primary Master’s and PhD thesis advisor, Elena Naumova, has taught me so much about how to answer questions with data and sparked my interests in data analysis and statistics. These new skills enabled me to go from being an engineer with an interest in public health to an investigator who is able to develop research questions, and plan and execute studies to find answers to these questions. Being able to do this with a goal of improving public health is so exciting.
How did you get the opportunity to work at the WHO? What was your work there like?
The opportunity to work at WHO resulted from a collaboration between Elena and her former colleague Andrey Egorov. In the summer of 2013, Andrey was looking for someone to help with data analysis of pilot surveys of environmental exposures in schools that WHO facilitated in middle income countries. I applied for the position as an intern and was able to spend 3 months in Bonn, Germany helping with this project, making lots of international friends, and exploring Europe. Andrey was such a wonderful mentor and teacher, ensuring that I was very busy and always learning new things. The following year, I began to work on the schistosomiasis project in Ghana as a Tufts employee but maintained my connections with Andrey, other WHO colleagues, and friends I had made in Bonn. After the conclusion of the employment and before continuing to work on the schistosomiasis project as my PhD, I had a free summer and decided to go back to Bonn. During that time, I continued to help Andrey but also started working with Oliver Schmoll and Enkhtsetseg Shinee in the water group on water-related disease surveillance. This project lasted approximately two years and culminated in the production of the report. Working with WHO resulted in a total of 3 publications which was great for my resume as a PhD student, a path that I didn’t even know I would take when I began working there as an intern.
What advice would you give to Tufts students looking at entering research fields similar to yours, particularly the environmental field?
I would recommend pursuing as many opportunities as possible. It may seem like a difficult decision to accept an unpaid internship after finishing a Master’s degree when your friends are advancing in their careers and getting promoted. But I have noticed that my experiences, even those that seem divergent from my career path at the time, have always converged and the connections and friendships I made along the way continue to help me today.
TIE wishes Alexandra good luck on her professional journey!