Microscopes without borders

Anyone questioning the impact a single individual can have on the world should meet Olga Pena. The daughter of a housewife and dam builder, Pena led a team of UBC students on a “field trip” to Colombia this summer, where they inspired more than 1,000 students to take up beakers and microscopes as a means to combat poverty and neglected tropical diseases.

Born and raised in a rural area in the Andean region of Tolima, Pena’s elementary school-educated parents encouraged her and her siblings to pursue higher education for hopes of a better life—her brothers are a civil engineer, an agronomist and a soon-to-be lawyer. Pena, the only one in her family fluent in English and the first to pursue post-graduate studies, was admitted to the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, a top private university in Bogota, at the age of 16. Following her undergraduate degree in Bacteriology and two years of “adventure” that took her to the University of Southern California, Pena was recruited to UBC last year by world-renowned microbiologist Bob Hancock.

“Olga is a brilliant student,” says Hancock, Canada Research Chair in Pathogenomics and Antimicrobials and best known for developing a peptide that fights infections from superbugs and salmonella by boosting the body’s own immune system. “I’m extraordinarily pleased to have her in my lab.”

And it was in Hancock’s lab that Pena was exposed to a new idea: global citizenship.

Hancock’s involvement with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges in Global Health, UBC’s Neglected Global Diseases Initiative and the campus chapter of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines rubbed off on her and her lab mates, says Pena.
“We have a very multicultural lab, with graduate students, post-docs and technicians from India, Spain, Germany, Serbia, Africa, Australia and Iran,” says Pena. “In our discussions we came to the conclusion that developed countries place a lot more emphasis on and investments in science education and it positively affects the socioeconomic status and overall health of their populations.
“Whereas in a country like Colombia, where people are struggling on a day-to-day basis, there isn’t the culture or infrastructure to support science as an academic or career option.”

And that’s something Pena thought she could do something about.

She founded the Accessible Science Initiative (ASI) and in less than a year, assembled a team of UBC undergraduate and graduate students to fundraise their way to bring textbooks, microscopes—and most importantly, hope—to her home community of Tolima. The team, consisting of students from the Faculties of Science, Education, Arts, Applied Science and the Sauder School of Business, partnered with the University of Tolima, where they conducted workshops with 100 school teachers and facilitated interactive science activities and career talks with close to 1,000 students. They also developed a science symposium and delivered donations of lab materials and equipment such as microscopes and copies of a Spanish interactive science manual the team produced with 30 hands-on science activities that are sensitive to both the local culture and resources.

“For example, DNA extraction experiments are typically done with kiwi fruits here in North America,” says Pena. “But kiwis are expensive and hard to find in Colombia, so we designed the same activity using mangos.

“Another chapter introduces some of the intestinal parasites commonly affecting the health of the local community to raise awareness among children and teenagers and show them how to properly clean their hands and food.”

“Their approach is extraordinarily innovative,” says Hancock, who adds that Pena’s enthusiasm is, well, infectious.

“If you ask people whether they care about underprivileged populations, they’ll probably say yes, but that’s a far cry from actually doing something about it,” Hancock says. “Olga knows from personal experience the importance of education in changing the lives of people in an impoverished community, and she’s inspired and mobilized her peers to make a tangible difference.”

Pena says the experience has added multiple dimensions to an area of academic research that was already close to her heart. Her PhD thesis will be on Sepsis, a blood infection caused by a highly resistant bacteria called MRSA—the same disease that took her father when she was 23.

“It took him away in less than 10 days, it was a very painful experience,” says Pena. “I knew very little about Sepsis at that time but five years later, when Bob offered me a spot in his lab and specifically in this field, I could not have been happier.”