Thinking about health across “scales”: Amy Sweeny ‘12

Written by
Erin Wispelwey
Feb. 13, 2018

Amy Sweeny studies helminth infection in mice as a PhD student in Evolutionary Biology. Amy Sweeny wrote her Princeton thesis on helminth infection in mice as an Ecology and Evolutionary Biology major. However, Amy’s evolution from undergraduate worm researcher to PhD worm researcher was not a straight path, she tried different job roles at the intersection of ecology and infectious disease before defining her niche. This exploration helped her understand how her expertise complements the interdisciplinary approaches necessary to intervene in global health, and has made her a better researcher.

At Princeton, Amy knew she was interested in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, but it was Professor Biehl’s medical anthropology course that interested her in the human and socio-cultural sides of health. This course and others within the Global Health Program helped to stretch the boundaries of her coursework with its interdisciplinary offerings and enabled her to explore the intersection of infectious disease, ecology, and health care.

Upon leaving Princeton, Amy embarked on a career that combined ecology with health and infectious disease. Through a Project 55 fellowship [now Alumnicorps(link is external)] with AERAS(link is external), an organization that works to advance tuberculosis vaccine research and development, Amy had an opportunity to see real-life applications of the vaccine development process and applied many of the themes discussed in her GHP courses, including, costing out, and planning a vaccine rollout should they reach the market. However, her main role was project management and while she enjoyed broadening her perspective in a policy, she also missed research. Specifically, being able to target a specific unknown or problem in an experimental way and then relate that back to the broader picture of health. Her next step was a research internship at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)(link is external).

With the NIH, Amy explored the diversity of Apicomplexan protozoans infecting marine mammals and the roles of anthropogenic activity and climate change in driving events of parasite spillover across ecosystems. Her particular focus was on the cross section of parasitology and molecular epidemiology focusing on changing infection dynamics in Arctic marine mammals due to climate change. This study system allowed her to work on a wild system while studying the human implications of how disease spread in wild populations may affect disease epidemiology in the rapidly changing climate we face today. While Amy enjoyed her work at NIH, it was a broad scale study system, and she was interested in pursuing a study system where she could investigate how individual factors affect health in greater detail. This brought her back to mice.

Although she debated between med school, vet school, and research, Amy again decided research was what she loved. “I love the hands on nature of research and the problem solving aspect and the fact that there is always more to find out! Making the decision really came down to me deciding that though I would like to stay involved with Global Health and a One Health perspective(link is external), I would like to do so from a standpoint of a disease ecologist who can work with medical professionals and veterinarians in the future to address issues that cross disciplines with a well rounded perspective”

She is currently pursuing a PhD in Evolutionary Biology in Scotland at the University of Edinburgh. “I found a supervisor whose interests are similar to mine in terms of exploring disease ecology mechanisms with a mind for the bigger picture and excitement for pushing new and timely questions with our study system. She also is a collaborator with my thesis advisor at Princeton, Andrea Graham. In this program I have returned to working on wild mice and I am looking at drivers of variations in helminth infection—essentially why some individuals are ‘wormier’ than others. Specifically, I look at how nutrition, deworming programs, and other factors affect helminth infection morbidity. One of the nice things about our study system is that we are able to study helminth infection in mice in both a lab system and a wild system which allows us to test and compare a myriad of factors in a controlled and uncontrolled environment, providing really invaluable insights into mechanism.”

According to Amy, the most important aspect that GHP contributed to her career is the ability to think big picture—and across disciplines and across scales. When she worked with AERAS she was able to engage with concepts from her research and global health experience in her project management role that informed her understanding of the organisation as a whole—from basic research to vaccine rollout. Additionally, this role exposed her to how important it is to have different disciplines work together to solve any health challenge. Amy’s advice to current GHP students is to make connections between what you are learning in one course across different courses—don’t just think within one course. This type of associative thinking helps you in most health careers as real life concepts cannot be effectively addressed within silos. “GHP added another dimension to the way I think about a challenge and about how health interventions look like in different countries, from program management, to collaborator inputs, to basic science research. Take advantage of internships or fellowship positions within or after college that look across disciplines, this will help you figure out what excites you more, see a larger picture of health, and build the collaborative skills necessary for research and program intervention as you carve out your specific niche. I've always had a hard time figuring out what to do because I am interested in many things and program showed me how I can be involved in many different things regardless of my role.”