Vermont Commons students spend summer investigating Chagas Disease

Vermont Commons Students in the lab this summer. Courtesy photo
Vermont Commons Students in the lab this summer. Courtesy photo

For Vermont Commons Students, Lincoln Pierce ’16 of Duxbury, Henry Harder ’17 of Shelburne, and Anna Hulse ’17 of South Hero, summer vacation has meant long but exciting hours in the lab at UVM studying Chagas disease – a disease endemic to 21 Latin American countries where approximately 110 million, mostly poor, rural people live in areas with the disease, and about 8 million people in those areas are infected.

This disease, caused by a parasite that is primarily spread by blood-feeding insects, infects its human host who can remain a carrier with no symptoms for 10-30 years before inflammation of the heart, esophagus, and other organs can lead to premature death. As climate change warms the planet, those insects are marching north.

As a part of this National Science Foundation grant received by Peter Goff, Chair of the Vermont Commons Science Department in partnership with University of Vermont, Loyola University in New Orleans, and La Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala, these Vermont Commons students built a predictive STELLA system dynamics model for Chagas disease transmission. They then co-led, with Peter Goff and Dr. Donna Rizzo, Professor in the UVM Engineering School,

a 2-day workshop for K-12 Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) teachers as part of UVM’s STEM Leads program. Lincoln, Henry and Anna were each in charge of two teams of adults, teaching them how to build EcoMachines for their classrooms.

In addition, for the past two weeks, the students have spent time in a genetics lab, extracting and analyzing DNA from the disease vectors. Over the next few weeks, they will finalize their systems model, produce a teaching Case Study to be distributed by ISEE (the makers of STELLA) and the National Science Foundation. In addition, during the school year, they will attend two conferences: the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco where their presentation will focus on the Chagas Disease as an example of an SIR model and where they will be teaching the audience about Chagas disease itself, and the Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases meeting, hosted by the National Science Foundation, where the presentation will focus on how to use System Dynamics to model a well-known disease.

Vermont Commons School is an independent middle and high school in South Burlington serving students in grades 6-12. The school offers a rigorous academic curriculum that includes a focus on community service and experiential education.