Dr. Janis Weeks is the first to admit her career arc has been anything but traditional. The neuroscientist turned parasite researcher and global health advocate fell in love with Africa on her first visit in 1996, while teaching in a neuroscience short-course. Since then her connections with the African continent have grown, including becoming a student and performer of African music (marimba and mbira). Throughout more than two decades of neuroscience teaching in Africa and stays with her music teachers, Janis has witnessed firsthand the effects of disease and poor healthcare on the continent. This ultimately motivated her to tie her passion for global health to her position as a University of Oregon (UO) professor. With the blessing of the UO Biology Department, she switched from teaching neuroscience courses to teaching two new courses: “Tropical Diseases in Africa” and “HIV/AIDS in Africa”.
Funded by the UO African Studies program, in the mid-2000s Janis spent time in medical facilities in Zimbabwe to collect case study material for her teaching. She was once again shocked by what she witnessed. In a poor rural hospital, Janis recalls handing out her own acetaminophen to help feverish kids diagnosed with HIV infection. At this point, she began to think about how she could realign her neuroscience research with the field of infectious and parasitic disease. In 2010, Janis started to collaborate with long-time friend and UO colleague Prof. Shawn Lockery, to combine neurophysiology and microfluidics technologies in C. elegans. In 2011, the two co-founded NemaMetrix to commercialize their ScreenChip System technology. Still passionate about parasites, Janis obtained funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2013 to convert the C. elegans ScreenChip technology for use with parasitic nematodes of humans and animals. Janis is currently Professor Emeritus at UO and Chief Global Health Officer at NemaMetrix. Although retired from UO, she still teaches a Tropical Disease course and directs a Global Health and Development study abroad program in Ghana.
I sat down with Janis to talk to her about her experiences and asked her a few questions about the parasitic nematode research field. Check out the questions and her responses below:
[Q] What is your favorite thing about parasitic nematodes?
[A] A few things: first the biology. It is so interesting! These parasites have evolved various life cycles and niches and, as a biologist, it is fascinating. They also are critically important when it comes to human and animal health. Another thing I appreciate is the parasitology community, which is passionate about their work. As a neuroscientist who didn’t know much about parasites when I started down this path, the parasitology community has been welcoming and generous with their help on my projects.
[Q] If you had a magic wand to change anything about the state of parasitic research, what would you change?
[A] If I had a magic wand, I would definitely make it easier to rear the parasites to study them. The lengthy life cycles are complex and expensive to maintain. For C. elegans, you just raise them on agar plates – it is quick, easy, and cheap. When I worked with hookworms during the Gates Foundation project, they were reared in hamsters; it was time-consuming to harvest enough worms for experiments and required killing the hamsters. In the real world, some of these parasites can live for decades in your body – that is insane! So to bring it back, with my magic wand I would take the complicated, slow, and expensive life cycles of parasitic worms and make them easy, fast, and affordable!
[Q] What is the biggest obstacle you see towards advancing research in this area?
[A] The life cycle problem is a big one. Transgenic methods have been challenging but are steadily improving. I think the use of “parasitized” C. elegans (C. elegans transformed to express parasite genes) will definitely help here. Another obstacle is making laboratory methods and instrumentation compatible with parasitic species. Far more instruments and techniques are developed for use with C. elegans than for use with parasites. That is why I’m really excited to hear that the WMicroTracker is compatible for parasitic research.