Nell Bond’s fascination with infectious diseases started all the way back in her high school AP Biology class, after her teacher recommended The Hot Zone, a nonfiction novel that shaped the public perception of viral hemorrhagic fever outbreaks. Now as she looks toward becoming a Junior Faculty member, Bond reflects on what she has learned thus far in her career. Read more to find out about her research on the long term sequelae of diseases like Ebola, her perspective on the importance of transdisciplinary teams, and why she’s drawn to working at the intersection between the lab and the field:
Can you tell me a little bit about your academic and research background?*
My background is in Pathogenic Microbiology. When I was an undergraduate at Cornell, I got the opportunity to take some courses at the Veterinary school, including a parasitology course and a virology course, which made me really excited about both of those fields. Even before that actually, in high school, my AP Biology teacher recommended we read The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. Reading that sparked my interest in the infectious diseases that I now study. So it’s been a long time coming from an interest that was initially piqued in me at a young age.
After undergrad, I worked at a biotechnology company for two years, through which I received training in many different laboratory techniques. I had a wonderful experience there, but I also knew that I wanted to pursue opportunities that would allow me to do more field work. Opportunities like applying to the Masters in Public Health program in the Department of Tropical Medicine at Tulane. From there, I eventually switched into my transdisciplinary PhD program in Tropical Medicine, Global Community Health, and Environmental Health Sciences. Through Tulane, I have had the opportunity to go to Sierra Leone and work with the team in Kenema [the Viral Hemorrhagic Fever Laboratory at Kenema Government Hospital], which has been a significant part of my work and research over the past decade.
What are some of your career goals?
I’m currently a postdoc working with John Schieffelin and Bob Garry at Tulane. I’m also in the midst of transitioning to become a Junior Faculty member in the Pediatric Infectious Disease Department at Tulane. My goal is to study the long-term consequences of severe acute viral infections on both general clinical health and immune responses, focusing on the immune responses of children following viral infection with disease like Ebola, for example. I’m interested in taking the cohort of Ebola survivors we have in Sierra Leone and looking at their ongoing health outcomes and response to vaccinations of different kinds, and seeing what the effect of that Ebola infection early in life is on their immune responses. I aim to become a research faculty member and to continue answering questions about viral hemorrhagic fevers.
How has your Global Community Health background informed your approach to research?
Coming from a transdisciplinary PhD program allows me to approach VHF and basic science work from a different angle. I think my training in community health research has granted me the mindset of approaching questions less from the perspective of what is interesting to me, and more from the perspective of what is most meaningful for the communities who are affected. It is very important, as well as valuable and meaningful, to involve the communities we’re working with in our projects. Going beyond just the bare minimum of obtaining informed consent for research, and taking it a step further by gaining an understanding of the problems facing community members, and how we can help solve them.
I think it is so crucial to have transdisciplinary teams. This is definitely being acknowledged by more and more researchers these days— the fact that teams of scientists composed of members with different areas of expertise are more capable of tackling complex problems. Specific expertise is still highly valuable, of course, but having background knowledge in more areas can help you see different challenges and questions in a new light, or at the very least lets you know who you could bring in to help you with those questions, as opposed to a more insular, siloed approach. One thing I love about WARN-ID, and all of the different CREID networks for that matter, is that they bring together people from many different disciplines.
What are the different challenges of working in the lab vs. conducting field studies? Do you have a favorite?
I think the common thread in both is taking the time to think through each and every step of the process. This means anticipating all of the possible outcomes or issues that could come up in either setting, such as anticipating the reagents or consumables you need in the lab, or the check-list of everything you need to bring in the field. Essentially being extremely prepared for any eventuality that could occur. The way the challenges present themselves between the lab and the field are different, but the approach to dealing with them is quite similar.
For me, I really love working at the intersection between the lab and in the field. One of the things I love about my lab work is supporting capacity building efforts in Sierra Leone. Taking the expertise I’ve learned over the years, and applying that towards building lab capacity in West Africa is highly rewarding. The human capacity is already there, so there is just the need for expanding the training and logistical capabilities involving the application of specific assays. My favorite part of the work is being able to implement some of the assays we do routinely in the U.S. in new settings, like at Kenema Government Hospital (KGH), for example.
Why is it important to study long term sequelae in survivors of Viral Hemorrhagic Fevers and other viruses?
I think it’s important to study long term sequelae due to the significant impact they have on quality of life. It’s critical to first discern what are the problems that people are experiencing, and then try to understand the underlying causes of these problems. Ultimately, figuring out how we can prevent or improve these outcomes in the future is how we can help improve the lives of VHF survivors and the survivors of other acute viral illnesses. We know a portion of people who have had Ebola will develop long term sequelae, and this is also true for other viral illnesses like COVID-19.
There are many Covid long haulers who experience a myriad of debilitating symptoms long after contracting the virus. If there’s a way to alleviate those problems or reduce the burden somewhat, I think it would have an immense positive impact on so many people’s lives. There are likely some common or similar mechanisms causing these conditions, so I am hopeful that learning more about the long term sequelae caused by one virus can inform the research for another. Until we identify the root causes of post viral sequelae, it will be difficult to find a solution to prevent it or to reduce the morbidity.
What advice would you give to an aspiring scientist interested in a career similar to yours?
Explore it! (laughs) I know that may sound kind of silly on its own, but what I mean by that is, “Do your research.” Talk to the people who have different aspects of the career you’re envisioning, and try it out in the ways that you are able. See what kind of experiences you can have to gain exposure to this kind of career. I would say, to undergrads— if you’re interested at all in public health, basic science research, or field work, to find a lab that’s doing that and see if you can volunteer and get a taste of what they’re doing. It’s kind of cliched, but ask a lot of questions! I think the people who are in my position, or my boss’s position, are all really excited to talk about our work, whether it be the fun exciting parts or the challenges.
I think that a lot of young people— or a lot of people in general actually, are nervous about being an imposition or bothering someone. But you just have to go for it. Usually everyone is really excited about what they do, and they will be more than willing to pass that excitement and knowledge onto the next generation.
Do you have any research questions you’d like to focus on in the future? Or areas you’d like to investigate further?
I’ve been thinking about this a decent amount at this stage of my career as I transition from being a postdoc to being Junior Faculty. I’ve been thinking about in particular what it is that I really want to research. One of those things is what I’m focusing on right now through studying the long term effects of Ebola and other viral illnesses on pediatric survivors. One aspect in particular that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is the potential role that premature aging may play in the development of negative health impacts. Accelerated aging is currently a pretty hot topic in immunology and virology. I became interested in this through finding out about the telomere research of one of our former faculty here at Tulane, Stacy Drury. She’s found that, in many cases, children who have experienced severe traumatic events early in life have shorter telomeres, and worse health outcomes as they age. So I thought it would be super interesting to look at premature aging both physiologically, through looking at telomere length, and via examining immune responses.
In this case, studying premature aging through measuring immune responses would be doing things like looking at the amount of naive T-cells versus terminally differentiated T-cells. So essentially I’d be interested in introducing the study of the concept of premature aging into the study of post viral sequelae, and the potential role premature aging may have in the development of these conditions.
What was your favorite or most memorable experience while working in-country?
My absolute favorite part about working in Sierra Leone, and Kenema specifically, since I’ve been going there since 2010, is the amazing friendships I’ve made over the years. It’s been wonderful to watch the people who have become my close friends grow both in their research and confidence in leadership. I’ve also been lucky enough to experience my friends and colleagues’ weddings and celebrate the births of children, and just to go through life with my team. I love being a part of a great community of researchers and people who work hard to fight the different public health problems their communities face every day.
*Interview conducted by Kyra Benowitz on April 27, 2023