Biology student conducts research on relationship between malaria-drug dosage and parasite-killing potential

Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Program at Colorado State University, a summer program that pairs undergraduate students with faculty mentors to conduct independent and real-world research projects, was still able to provide virtual research opportunities for students this summer. Ana Ibarra, a first-generation student in the Department of Biology, was able to conduct remote research with the support of faculty mentors and the REU program

Ibarra, who was mentored by Chemical and Biological Engineering faculty member Brad Reisfeld, created a project titled, “The pharmacodynamic dose-concentration model of artemisinin needed to kill the malarial parasite Plasmodium falciparum”. In her project, Ibarra explored the relationship between the dosage of artemisinin, the treatment for malaria, and its parasite killing potential. She specifically focused on how Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes malaria, destroys red blood cells and can affect their oxygen-binding ability.

While the World Health Organization recommends artemisinin to treat malaria, there is insufficient understanding of the relationship between dose and parasite killing potential. Ibarra collected data relating the dose of the artemisinin drug with the extent to which the parasite compromises oxygen-binding potential in red blood cells. She developed a mathematical pharmacodynamic model to predict how the amount of drug impacted parasite clearance, and extended the model to predict how various dosages affected parasite load and oxygen levels. 

Overcoming imposter syndrome

Despite Ibarra’s success in the REU program this summer, she almost didn’t apply.

I felt under-qualified due to imposter syndrome,” she said. “As a first-generation Latinx student, it’s difficult not to question whether you truly belong. I constantly have to remind myself that I have earned my place and no one has the right to question that. One day, I sat myself down and did all the essay requirements and told myself ‘at the very least you tried it’. Thankfully it wasn’t an ‘at least you tried it’ moment because I was accepted.”

Ibarra explained that mentors like the College of Natural Sciences Director of Inclusion, Arlene Nededog, supported her taking risks to participate in this project. 

“I got to know [Nededog] my freshman year of college and have kept in touch with her because she runs the CO-WY AMP program. I had initially reached out asking her about possible opportunities last summer, so when this opportunity became available she was very supportive of me applying.” 

Reflecting on her remote research experience, Ibarra concluded, “Although time was restricted to 10 weeks, I am excited with the amount of learning I did and the skills I gained. I am proud of my perseverance with learning the basics of python.”

This was Ibarra’s first experience conducting a literature review, and the experience taught her that science isn’t always about proving a hypothesis on the first go.

“As science students, we are so conditioned to find results, when that is not how actual research works,” she said. Through her experience in REU this summer, Ibarra contributed to the body of work in Malaria treatment and developed confidence in her field as a researcher and scholar.