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King Center supports undergraduate student research in infectious disease lab

Current and former students share their experience studying mosquito-borne viruses in the lab of Professor A. Desiree LaBeaud.

When Annabelle Smith, ’24, decided to continue her work in the infectious disease research laboratory run by Stanford University School of Medicine Professor A. Desiree LaBeaud with the support of the Stanford King Center on Global Development, the decision paid off for everyone. 

Smith, a biology student who is considering medical school, took the lead (with supervision) on a project LaBeaud had been wanting to start for years: analyzing past blood samples from pregnant women in Kenya to determine how the children of women with dengue virus fared after birth. And an abstract Smith wrote based on the results of the study was accepted for a poster presentation at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene's annual meeting in October

“It’s been an awesome process,” says Smith, who received support from the King Center’s undergraduate student programs. “I felt like a valued member of the team, and seeing how Dr. LaBeaud is able to bridge her clinical duties as well as maintain a lab has shown me it’s possible. I definitely want to be involved in research, not only in medical school but hopefully when I am a physician.”

The King Center’s undergraduate research program, which includes full-time summer funding and part-time positions during the academic year, offers opportunities for fieldwork and research experience for students interested in global poverty and development. The program is a win-win for students and faculty alike: LaBeaud, who has hosted several undergraduates in her lab in recent years, says she is happy to have the chance to work with students from disciplines across the university. 

“These are fantastic individuals,” she says. “They come with their own perspectives and interests and add to the fabric and culture of our lab. They are energized and excited about applying their new skills, and they move our research forward—doing the work of science. That’s a benefit to us.”

The LaBeaud Lab specializes in arboviral epidemiology, or the study of mosquito-borne viruses, including dengue, chikungunya, Zika, and Rift Valley fever viruses in Kenya and other developing regions. Before she worked on the project to identify correlations between dengue and maternal and child health outcomes, Smith regularly analyzed blood samples using PCR and ELISA tests.

Erin Floranda, ’24, another student who received King Center funding for work in the LaBeaud Lab during her junior year, also ran ELISAs, which require teams of students to manage over several days.

“We had to coordinate our schedules in order to help each other,” explains Floranda, who is studying bioengineering. “The main thing I learned was not only to be very attentive to what I was doing, but also teamwork—how to communicate with lab members. It was nice to bond with other students that have the same interests as me.”

Floranda also conducted experiments with Vero cells (which come from the African green monkey). She was interested in working in the LaBeaud Lab in part because her maternal aunt passed away after contracting dengue virus in the Philippines. She first worked in the lab for academic credit as a sophomore then applied for and received the King Center’s undergraduate academic year funding the following year.

“I thought it was a great opportunity to not only learn about research but also be able to help out and make a difference,” she says.

Researchers at the LaBeaud Lab
Smith (back row, second from left) and Floranda (back row, rightmost) in the lab with Bethel Bayrau, Izabela Rezende (postdoctoral scholar), and Laia Bent (former undergraduate researcher)

Another student who worked in the LaBeaud Lab recently focused not on the science itself but how to disseminate that science to the world. Cassidy Dalva, ’24, is an economics student with experience in journalism, including as an editor at the Stanford Daily. She also has an interest in science and the environment, and the LaBeaud Lab’s work at the intersection of those two areas intrigued her (LaBeaud and Bethel Bayrau, ’22, discussed the lab’s research into the link between trash—especially plastic waste—and mosquito-borne illness at the King Center in 2022; ongoing research examines how climate change could affect disease burden in Africa). Dalva spent the summer working for the LaBeaud Lab in a communications role.

“I thought it was a great way for me to apply my skills in a way I hadn’t really done before,” Dalva says.

Dalva met with researchers in the lab to discuss possible ways to promote their work and produced infographics and summaries for them. One of her biggest projects was helping lab members draft a forthcoming opinion piece for the Journal of the American Medical Association about a study the lab did on its own plastic waste.

“In a lot of my communications experience, I’ve been surrounded by other people doing communications,” she says. “This was new territory for me to be the only one doing this. It made me a lot more confident in my ability to manage a project independently and also to break down technically dense material. That’s a really important skill.”

Bayrau started at the LaBeaud Lab with King Center funding as a junior and continued to work in the lab throughout her undergraduate career (she received both academic year and summer funding).

“As a low-income student, I’ve had to work through college to sustain myself financially,” Bayrau says. “I came to Stanford mainly to engage in research opportunities, and having the King Center’s financial support allowed me to do that and get paid. Thanks to the center’s financial support, I was able to focus on doing research that I loved without worrying about finances.”

In 2022, LaBeaud hired Bayrau as a life sciences research professional; Bayrau served as a mentor to Floranda and Smith.

“If it wasn’t for working in this lab, I wouldn’t be inspired to take on or think about big, important issues that affect so many lives worldwide such as neglected tropical diseases and climate change,” Bayrau says. The experience “solidified my plans for the future; I too want to become a physician-scientist working on prevention of infectious diseases.”

One of the things students say they appreciate most about the King Center’s support of their research is the chance to meet peers who are working on other issues related to development at King Center events and luncheons.

“Being able to connect with people and see what they were doing was a cool experience,” Floranda says.

“You get to meet people from all different backgrounds,” Dalva adds.

LaBeaud says she views her work with undergraduate students as part of her role as an educator.

“This is a very important part of my job,” she says. “Having a lab and being in a teaching university and educational institution—we all need to do our part to support students.”

LaBeaud says the King Center’s support of undergraduate students is “vital.”

“I hope the King Center keeps up these undergraduate support programs forever,” she says. “When you link up welcoming labs and mentors with interested students, there’s a lot of potential for magic to happen in those connections and opportunities.”