Researcher Spotlight - Antonella Bacigalupo

This week, Elle has put PGR Antonella Bacigalupo under the Spotlight. Having already studied Veterinary Medicine, Antonella now works on Chagas disease, a tropical parasitic disease caused by the protist Trypanosoma cruzi. 

Can you tell us about your background?
I’m originally from Chile. As a child, I lived in Viña del Mar, a Coastal city by the Pacific Ocean. Then I attended Universidad de Chile in Santiago, the capital, to study Veterinary Medicine and to gain a MSc in Animal and Veterinary Sciences. My previous research focused mainly on the sylvatic cycle of T. cruzi in small mammal hosts and vectors of Chagas disease.

Antonella Bacigalupo picture 2What can you tell us about your PhD?
I received a scholarship from the Chilean government to support my studies here in the University of Glasgow. I’m enrolled in the Infectious Disease program; quite an ambitious title, but it gives ample opportunities to benefit from the work of a lot of researchers studying many important human and animal diseases.

What is the focus of your research?
My focus is still on Chagas disease, but now from the genomic perspective of the vectors. The vectors are hematophagous insects that transmit the parasite to mammals (including people). The main problem arises when these insects, commonly called kissing bugs, start living inside people’s houses: this increases the chance of transmission, as the bugs suck blood when people are sleeping and transmit the parasite in their faeces/urine. This occurs mainly in rural areas of Latin America, where people have less access to health services.
The idea is to evaluate genomic differences that might occur among vector populations living inside or outside houses, and to compare phenotypic differences between them (behaviour, morphology, physiology). This could inform control programs on how to prevent these insects from transmitting the T. cruzi parasite to people.

Why did you decide to do your PhD in IBAHCM?
My decision was predominantly guided by the fact that not many people on this side of the Atlantic work on Chagas disease. One of the few, my supervisor Martin Llewellyn, has a lot of experience and was highly motivated to receive me in his lab. The University’s reputation was also an important factor, because the institution funding scholarships in my country rates the candidates’ programs according to universities’ rankings. Once I knew that Martin worked in IBAHCM, I was very excited, as it encompasses almost all the areas that I’m most interested in.

What do you find most interesting about your work?
What I found most interesting about working on Chagas disease vectors’ genomics and phenotypical traits, is that this work could pinpoint areas of the genome that are related to behaviour, physiology or morphology of these insects, which could later be targets for genome editing. Put simply, when a kissing bug found in a dwelling has a specific genomic sequence, it could indicate whether that vector may be more (or less) prone to transmit the parasite. This could help decisions regarding prioritisation of areas to control when resources are scarce, which is unfortunately frequent for this neglected tropical disease.

What has been the most positive aspect so far?
The most positive aspect has been to be able to live in Glasgow (unlike many people, I’m not bothered by the rain), and specifically to be welcomed within IBAHCM, with its social openness that helps people to make new friends from all around the world. It’s been refreshing to see that here Professors have one-on-one conversations with students as equals, and that there is such an effort to promote equality and diversity in the University.

What has been the most challenging aspect so far?
The most challenging aspect so far has been the bioinformatics, as it is a field in which I have no previous experience, but that I desperately need to understand in order to get my analyses running.

What advice would you give to anyone doing or considering PhD?
A PhD is a little battle with oneself, in the sense that YOU need to do everything to progress, so you need to motivate yourself every day.Things can always go wrong, but they will get better; there’s no need to despair. Leave some time for exercise and try to sleep the recommended hours.

Tell us about your future plans.
In the near future, I hope to do my fieldwork and behavioural-physiological-morphological analyses in Ecuador… I suppose we’ll see what happens with Coronavirus….
When I finish my PhD, I will either return to Chile to work in research in a University or do a PostDoc first. I hope to maintain a network of contacts in America (the continent) and here, to continue collaborating amongst international initiatives for vector control.

Don’t miss Antonella’s talk entitled “The genetic basis for triatomine vector domiciliation, to inform Chagas disease control” at the PhD Seminar Series on Friday 20th March at 4pm in LT2 of the Graham Kerr Building.


First published: 18 March 2020