Guiding experiences

Laura Cronin’s cell phone rings, and she answers hurriedly.

“I’m just finishing an experiment,” she tells the caller, a writer from Cleveland. “It will take me two more minutes. Can I call you back?”

Cronin ’07, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and a minor in philosophy, is a graduate student at Yale University pursuing a joint master’s degree in public health in microbial epidemiology and physician assistant and expects to receive her degree in the spring of 2013. She has spent a lot of time engrossed in lab experiments before and after a research trip to Uganda in early 2012 financially supported by Yale’s Downs and Lindsay Fellowships.

In Uganda, a poor, East African country of about 35 million people, Cronin spent 10 weeks working with the National Livestock Resource Research Institute collecting blood samples from livestock – cows, pigs, goats, and sheep – to diagnose and treat those with parasitic infections caused by bites from Tsetse flies. These bites are how the deadly disease African Sleeping Sickness is contracted. In cattle, the disease is characterized by malnourishment, which reduces their lifespan, the calving rate, and milk production. Collected samples are analyzed in a lab.

Cronin with a Ugandan girl

The goal of Cronin’s project is to use knowledge gained in the lab to better understand livestock in Uganda. Researchers want to see if livestock reservoirs of African Sleeping Sickness have naturally circulating antibodies against a certain surface protein. Knowing this could help when assessing disease risk and determining treatment. Cronin is evaluating the presence of an immune response in the collected samples. Her preliminary lab work is reassuring.

“With limited money for disease control, it’s important to target the most significant sources of disease,” says Amy Savage, Ph.D., Cronin’s advisor at Yale. “We hope Laura’s data will give us insight about the importance of small farm animals as reservoirs of the disease.”

Ugandans need healthy animals to survive and thrive, so livestock is a principal way of life. They depend on it for food, fuel, and income.

Cronin’s intelligence and hard work are just part of what allows her to complete her research successfully.

“Laura is relentlessly optimistic, which is the significant key to her success in Africa,” Savage says. “She handles roadblocks and unexpected challenges with poise and good humor. This aspect of her good nature helped open doors that might otherwise remain closed to someone else.”

Cronin’s trip to Uganda, a country that neighbors Kenya and Sudan, was her first to Africa. The cultural and personal experience was as rewarding as her research.

“Uganda is a beautiful country,” says the Chicago native. “The most profound thing I experienced was their sense of community and commitment to it. They take time to enjoy life.”

Cronin and the research institute’s staff visited 12 sites to test animals. Much of that time was spent in small villages where life was simple but demanding.

“There’s a sense of hard, manual labor that I can’t even begin to fathom,” she says. “Yet it’s a beautiful life, a meaningful one.”

Cronin’s experience reminded her of the simple but significant gestures in life.

“If someone greets you, no matter what you’re doing, you greet them and give them your time,” she says.

Ugandans also taught her to take pride in cooking meals.

“You’d start cooking at 6 o’clock at night and eat at 10,” she says. “It was a huge event.”

Cronin also discovered doing everyday chores, such as washing clothes and bathing, was time consuming and challenging at times. “For three or four weeks, I had no running water to my house,” she says. “I had to walk to a spot about 50 feet from my house to get it. The last week I was there, I had to drive a mile to get water. I learned the value of conservation.”

Cronin, who followed her father, John ’71, to Carroll, always has been interested in ecology and biology. After Yale, she’d like to return to the Midwest and, perhaps, find a rural community to work as a physician’s assistant.

“I don’t have too many plans,” she says. “I always let my experiences guide me.”

– Sue Valerian

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