Postdoc Spotlight: Benjamin Rice

Tuesday, Nov 30, 2021
by Aimee Bronfeld, Center for Health and Wellbeing

One might argue that a scientist’s most valuable asset is an open mind. That has certainly been the case for Benjamin Rice, a Global Health Program affiliate and Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Princeton’s Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. Over the past 13 years, his inquisitive nature, spirit of adventure, and fascination with global health has inspired him to study pathogen diversity and novel ways of alleviating disease burden around the world.

In a recent interview, Rice chronicles his journey to Madagascar and beyond for research exploring genomic and serological analysis of infectious disease across various settings. His goal is to better under the dynamics and determinants of commonly circulating pathogens, such as coronaviruses and malaria, to enhance our ability to control disease and elevate community health.

Q. What sparked your interest in biology and its role in advancing global health?

A. It probably started with my family. To say my father was an international traveler is an understatement; just one example is that he biked and hitchhiked from Amsterdam to Afghanistan in the 1970s. There was an interest in a broader world, which he instilled in me.

Also, my parents were big proponents of treating everyone the same, advocating that all people deserve equal things. When studying infectious disease, you realize that it’s a biological phenomenon but there’s a clear social reasoning as to why infectious diseases are way more prevalent in certain communities. That’s just not right, and was a motivating factor behind my desire to work on these kinds of problems.

My interest in biology grew in college, particularly when I took an ecology class with a professor who was looking for undergraduate research assistants to work in his malaria research lab. That the professor (Ananias Escalante) was Latino also was impactful to me… I could see myself as a scientist for the first time. I signed up, and it turned out to be an amazing, formative experience. The lab exposed me to the forefront of biology and the possibilities associated with mixing new ecology and evolutionary approaches with infectious diseases. I really enjoyed the work and the community.

Q. After receiving your B.S. in Microbiology and Global Health from Arizona State University, you earned a Ph.D. in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology from Harvard University. Why did you choose this path and area of specialization?

A. When it comes to infectious disease, and biology in general, the more you know, the more interesting it is. So once you start learning, you always want to learn more.

I was intrigued and inspired by research I did in Colombia as an undergraduate. For me, working in the field and establishing partnerships with people on the ground was an especially productive and fruitful approach to learning, leading to better projects and better results. The opportunity to continue this kind of work in graduate school was exciting.

As I learned more about infectious disease, I realized how important it is to not only study pathogens but also the larger world. Infectious disease reveals things about the social context in which it spreads and offers an interesting lens. More concretely, that period in time represented a turning point in the field of biology. It was a really fun time to be in this space, as genome sequencing, high throughput serology, and other new lab techniques became more accessible and led to an explosion in research. Once I realized that attending graduate school was feasible and I could do research as a career, I went on to earn my Ph.D. and found a way to combine my interests in science and community health.

Q. A lot of your research, including your dissertation and postdoctoral work, has focused on infectious disease in resource-poor settings, principally Madagascar. What drew you to this realm?

A. There are places, like Madagascar, which are biodiversity hotspots, and they often overlap with disease hotspots, making them interesting subjects of study.

There was a pivotal moment around the second week in graduate school when a seminar speaker (Christopher Golden, an ecologist and epidemiologist), who was studying interactions between human health and the environment in Madagascar, came to our department. The seminar topic was compelling, so I went to the pre-event luncheon and ended up having a one-on-one conversation with the speaker. He was talking about the nutrition side of human health – how these communities that live near forests acquire food and about their interactions with infectious disease as well. He also mentioned that his lab in Madagascar was looking for someone in the infectious disease space to collaborate with them, which sounded awesome. I said, “Let’s go.”

Q. Your doctoral research studied the ecology and evolution of Plasmodium parasites that cause malaria in Madagascar. Can you tell me a bit about this project and perhaps offer some context for why you chose this particular topic?

A. Maybe because it is such a biodiversity hotspot, a lot of the conversation about Madagascar tends to focus on conservation and alleviating malnutrition. It sort of ignores the broad health challenges of communities living near the forests, where those conservation projects are happening.

For a long time, Madagascar has been considered a lower intensity malaria country. However, on the ground, we observed that the transmission intensity and burden of malaria was higher than appreciated at the national and international levels. There simply wasn’t enough surveillance in these underserved and understudied areas to make an accurate assessment. As a result, vector-borne diseases have been overlooked in health and development strategies, demonstrating a need to better understand these dynamics and to provide solid data for decision-makers.

My dissertation explored the drivers of malaria transmission and disease burden within the context of Madagascar, an island that is extremely diverse in terms of ecology. The east coast is very humid with high rainfall and moist forests, while the west coast is arid with spiny forests and deserts. These communities have different geography, climate and exposure to infectious disease, and I wanted to study the factors at play.

Q. What were your key findings?

A. The main finding, as inferred from genetic data and prevalence surveys, confirmed that the burden of malaria was much higher in Madagascar than previously thought. We also observed dramatic variation between communities, even those that looked similar and were only a couple of hundred meters apart. Community A might be just over the hill from community B, but the prevalence of malaria was three times higher.

We identified two primary reasons for this variation. One is a high level of spatial heterogeneity, or differences in the surrounding ecology and resulting exposure to mosquitoes. For example, some areas have many bodies of water while others have few. There is also a lot of variation at the household level. In certain communities, some households are especially vulnerable – due to a myriad of factors we are still trying to understand – and experience a disproportionate amount of the malaria burden.

The key takeaway from this research is a need for flexible, customized malaria interventions and control strategies. The local ecology determines which pathways are most important. On the west coast, for instance, we argue that you could target small, rare water bodies that are driving transmission. Following this, a President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI) project started such a targeted approach this year. But that same strategy wouldn’t work on the east coast because water is everywhere. Also, it is important to zoom in on households at higher risk, tailoring interventions to the specific needs of those families.

Q. How could your research be useful on a broader level, advancing efforts to control infectious disease in other countries?

A. One of our goals was to show how genomic technology could offset limitations in the existing health care system. In this case, we used genetic data to bolster the weight of our observations of higher than expected malaria burden. Genetic sequencing performed on samples collected by our research team allowed us to understand malaria transmission in areas where the current health care system doesn’t have the capacity to collect that data.

Madagascar is just one example. This approach could be applied internationally. There are a lot of places around the world where access to health care and infrastructure are lacking, and as a result we’re often blind to what’s going on there. Innovative technologies can help expose hidden realities. I hope that our work in Madagascar serves as a model for improving the way we monitor and analyze disease dynamics in other countries, so we can improve control methods and impact public health.

Q. What brought you to Princeton’s Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology as a Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow?

A. I had the good fortune to collaborate with Jess Metcalf [associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs] as a graduate student in Madagascar. I was working in one research group focused on malaria and nutrition while she was working on measles and other vaccine preventable diseases, and we eventually had the opportunity to work together. As I was graduating, I wanted to expand into different areas, including immunology and ecological modeling, and Jess had that expertise.

Receiving the Princeton fellowship gave me the opportunity to collaborate on ongoing projects while acquiring a new skill set. And the Center for Health and Wellbeing (CHW) is a great fit for my research at the crossroads of biology and public health. In particular, Princeton has an amazing community of ecology and evolutionary biology researchers that’s hard to beat anywhere else. It’s been really rewarding to work with Jess, Bryan Grenfell, Andrea Graham, Rachel Baker and others in the disease ecology space.

Q. Can you share a bit more about the focus of your postdoctoral research? Has the pandemic significantly affected your work?

A. I’m interested in the ecology and evolution of the organisms that cause infectious disease in understudied, resource-poor communities. Specifically, I’m looking at how interactions between human hosts, pathogens and environments lead to poorer health outcomes. Also, I want to know how we can apply new ecology and evolutionary research methods to learn things about infectious diseases that we previously struggled to understand.

I arrived in Princeton on February 1, 2020, giving me a few weeks of relative normalcy before everything began to lock down. As a postdoc, I have the funding and support to buffer many obstacles associated with the pandemic, but travel restrictions and other extreme changes have been a challenge for me, as they have been for everyone else. There were considerable delays in our ability to collect baseline data in the field, for example. I could either sit around and wait until the pandemic ends, or find other things to work on.

Q. What has been keeping you busy?

A. I’ve been working on a couple of projects. One of them employs ecological approaches to studying coronaviruses in a global context. There are a lot of places around the world where certain communities are left out of the conversation due to low surveillance, as was the case with malaria prevalence in Madagascar.

My current research, supported by CHW, includes efforts to understand variation in commonly circulating coronaviruses. This collaborative endeavor was the basis for two recently published papers. One explores the trajectory of novel coronaviruses and explanations for why so few can establish endemic transmission. It analyzes the drivers of spillover and why certain viruses expand and persist in the human population, setting the table for additional research. In fact, I was just talking to my collaborators at the National Institutes of Health about next steps on how to pursue this further.

The other paper focuses on variation in SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks across Sub-Saharan Africa. There was this false notion that the entire continent of Africa was spared from the pandemic. The reality is that cases have been underreported due to poor surveillance, and there’s a tremendous amount of variation between countries. I felt motivated to respond, analyzing existing data sets with a lens toward Covid-19. In this paper, we argue the importance of understanding the spatial extent of outbreaks, particularly in settings with high comorbidity burdens and poor access to care.

I’m also assisting some of my collaborators in Madagascar and Sub-Saharan Africa who are trying to design better vaccination strategies, simulating and modeling different approaches to vaccination. I believe the Covid vaccination rate is still below 3% in this population.

The other line of research, focused on malaria, expands my doctoral work with a new long-term, longitudinal study in a particular region in Madagascar with high malaria prevalence. The goal is to understand the dynamics in that hotspot area even more to guide disease interventions.

Q. What is your perspective on teaching and mentoring, which has played a significant role in your career?

A. Over the years, there have been many people who spent a lot of time, energy and expertise mentoring me, so there is an obligation to return the favor and pass it on. Beyond the desire to spread good will, I also subscribe to the notion that collaborative science is better science. The more collaborators you have across age range and geographic space, the better the information and the more progress you make toward understanding and solving a problem. You learn more and end up with better ideas by engaging with people who are junior to you as well as those who are senior to you, especially within the area of global health.

Q. I understand that you will be teaching the undergraduate introductory epidemiology course this spring. Are you looking forward to that and planning to put your own spin on the class?

A. Definitely. It will be a really interesting time to teach that course, given current events. Hopefully, there will be an accumulation of knowledge on which we can reflect. Also, there’s been a lot of discussion about how public health and epidemiology factors into our lives. We’ll see how a topic that has been intimately familiar to everyone manifests itself in the classroom.

As far as bringing a new twist to the course, we received a grant to incorporate a planetary health module. It’s been in the curriculum before, but this gives us the opportunity to elevate that perspective and explore how healthy humans and healthy environments are related. We plan to bring in outside speakers with expertise in this area, including voices from Madagascar and other countries.

Q. Any thoughts about the next chapter in your career or your vision for how you might contribute to improvements in global health?

A. Right now I’m really enjoying being part of the Princeton community, working with Jess and other researchers. On the immediate horizon, we have a few projects that we finally got off the ground, and it will be fun to see where those go. Long term, I plan on using breakthrough technologies and approaches to better understand community health in areas where that has previously been impossible because of financial limitations.

In terms of impact, my research has been positively received by policy makers, funders and large international bodies involved with disease control efforts, which is encouraging. I feel like there’s a renewed appetite for understanding what’s driving diseases like malaria and coronaviruses so that we can make progress on reducing their burden and improving health outcomes for at-risk populations.

I also look forward to embracing unexpected opportunities. Back in graduate school, I went to a seminar – partly for the free lunch – and ended up establishing a collaboration that took me to Madagascar and a whole new area of research. I’m hoping for more of those twists and turns in my career, my research, and the field of global health.

Q. Just for fun, would you like to share a favorite pastime or interesting fact about yourself?

A. As an escape, I like to visit libraries and enjoy reading books about ancient history – calming places and calming topics, for some reason. I also love spending time with family, especially my nieces, when I get the chance. We go to soccer games and Facetime as often as we can.