Examining Malaria Resistance

GW student wins $10,000 anthropology fellowship.

Felicia Gomez smiling in lab
June 10, 2010

By Jennifer Price

A George Washington doctoral student has won a $10,000 dissertation writing fellowship from the American Anthropological Association.

Felicia Gomez, M.Phil. ’08, a student in the hominid paleobiology doctoral program in the Department of Anthropology, will use the fellowship to complete her dissertation on the evolutionary history of malaria-related genes.

The annual Minority Dissertation Fellowship is intended to encourage members of ethnic minorities to complete doctoral degrees in anthropology, thereby increasing diversity in the discipline.

“They only give out one award a year so it’s pretty special,” she says. “I was really shocked.”

Ms. Gomez is examining gene mutations that may be beneficial by making people less vulnerable to malaria, a mosquito-borne infectious disease.

“I’m studying genes that may have been affected by natural selection due to malaria,” she says.

When someone is bitten by a mosquito carrying the disease, a parasite enters the body, multiplies in the liver and infects the red blood cells. Symptoms of malaria include fever, headaches and vomiting. As the disease becomes more severe, the red blood cells begin to stick together, which allows the parasite to continue replicating and disrupts the blood supply to the body’s vital organs.

By studying DNA samples from 15 African populations, Ms. Gomez has examined specific genes that have mutated to affect the adhesiveness of red blood cells. This genetic variation is thought to play a role in malaria resistance, says Ms. Gomez, who hopes her research will provide a foundation for others to build on.

“If we understand exactly what the biochemistry is that allows the parasite to enter a person’s red blood cells and multiply there, we can make better drugs against the disease,” says Alison Brooks, professor of anthropology and international affairs.

Ms. Gomez received her bachelor’s degree from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where she majored in both biology and anthropology. After graduating, she went to work in public health genetics at the New York State Department of Health. But after two years, she wanted to continue her education in human evolution so she came to GW and joined the hominid paleobiology program.

“My project has really helped me combine my interests in genetics and public health and how disease has affected human evolution,” she says.

For the past two years, Ms. Gomez has been conducting her research at the University of Pennsylvania, under the direction of Sarah Tishkoff, an associate professor in the university’s Department of Genetics and Biology.

After completing her dissertation, Ms. Gomez hopes to work in genetics and public health.

“This is quite a competitive fellowship that Felicia won so we’re enormously pleased and impressed,” says Dr. Brooks. “We’re so proud that one of our students was recognized as ranking among the best anthropology students in the country.”

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