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Student collects snails in Kenya for master's thesis

Rolf Difborg, a master of science student at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH), has just returned from a trip to Kenya collecting ... snails. These molluscs are the key to his master thesis as the parasites transmitted by them cause snail fever. Here is what Rolf had to say about his research.

It’s midday in Kenya and the sun is burning hot, stinging my neck as I stand bent over near the stream searching through grass and mud that has been sieved from the water. I am searching for snails, but not just any snails – a particular type which transmits a parasite that causes the disease schistosomiasis, also known as snail fever.

The field work is part of my master thesis in parasitology. Through my project I aim to acquire better understanding of how increasing temperatures will affect transmission of the parasite, and how to best detect the larvae in the snails. I therefore find myself travelling through small villages in rural Kenya to collect the snails that spread the parasite, so I can bring them home to be used in my experiments.

During my stay, I quickly find that the field work holds more value than just getting samples for my experiments. It also helps me connect theory with reality, and higher understanding of the problematic path of fighting the parasite. As we go from village to village, I see one example after another of why the parasite is able to persist and infect people. At one site a young man, roughly my own age, comes to us and asks what we are doing. We reply that we look for areas where the parasite is present and transmitted. The man nods.

He is familiar with the disease caused by the parasite. Yet as we stand there working, he kneels down drinking from the stream, disregarding any threat to his health. What else is he to do? He is thirsty and this water is the only source to quince his thirst. Such episodes give me an understanding which can sometimes be hard to grasp when only reading about it in a book. After seven intense days, rich with experiences, I say goodbye to Kenya and head home with the collected snails.

Challenges back home

Back home many months of work awaits. I now have to carefully design experiments to identify at what temperature the development of the parasite peaks. To fully understand how to do this, I have to get familiar with terms within ecology, malacology and molecular biology. My background is in biotechnology and many of the subjects are therefore new to me, however this is one of the reasons I chose the project.

When I was picking my thesis, I looked for a project where I could challenge myself and acquire new skills. Parasitology offered many opportunities to do so. And indeed I got challenged as I quickly discovered. It turns out snails are not that easy to keep alive in artificial systems, and the parasite does not necessarily behave as expected either. Such are the biological systems, and these are but small fractions of the challenges I encounter along the way.

While these ‘bumps in the road’ sometimes are frustrating, they make the days interesting. Because every challenge results in increased knowledge about the parasite and the skill required to work with it. Knowledge I am keen to acquire, because after all we live in a world dominated and shaped by parasites and I wish to understand it better.

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