Fun on the Farm: A Day in the Life of a Farmer-Turned-Scientist

Fun on the Farm: A Day in the Life of a Farmer-Turned-Scientist

Friday, July 21, 2017 - 8:00am
Sarah and Laura Getting Pig Samples
Sarah and I collecting samples from the pigs. Photo credit: Jim Rogalski.

By Laura Borkenhagen, 2nd-year MSc-GH student

We’re about halfway through week seven (yikes!) and the pressure is about to set in for the Sibu Six. There’s been talk of wrapping up sample collection soon, and it’s crazy to think things are moving this fast!  

So, what have we been doing these past 6+ weeks, you ask?  Jane, Hudson and Sarah have been working with medical officers in the hospital to enroll patients. Kerry and Rick have become regulars at the local markets on their daily strolls with the bioaerosol samplers. 

And of course, we’ve all been putting in lots of lab time doing DNA/RNA extractions and RT-PCR. On top of all of that, we’ve been hitting the field, and by that, I mean the pig farm! 

Two of our three major studies are using samples collected from pigs.  The study Kerry, Rick and I are working on involves collecting oral secretions and fecal samples from the pigs, bioaerosol samples and nasal wash samples from the workers (explanations to come, don’t worry!).  

Our main objective is to see if viruses infecting the pigs are being aerosolized and hanging out in the noses of the workers. Sarah is also using the pig fecal samples to see if the same diarrheal virus she’s looking for in humans (norovirus) is infecting pigs as well. Isn’t research glamorous?

To describe a typical farm visit would be nearly impossible (though I’m going to try), as every farm has many quirks and kinks of its own. We’ve seen your standard farms with pens of big pink sows munching on corn meal, and we’ve also seen your glorified mud pits with “local pigs,” or as they’re known in Malaysia, babi kampung

 
 

Mix of babi kampung and traditional domestic pigs enjoying what can only be described as pig heaven.

Our first farm visit was a mild train wreck. We were overly prepared in some respects, but essentially unaware of what to expect in others. After nine visits (and counting), we’ve got somewhat of a routine down. After we’ve confirmed consent with the farm owner, Sarah and I head off to collect the pig samples while our local collaborators start enrolling workers, and Kerry and Rick find the perfect spot to set up the bioaerosol sampler.  

 
 

Piggo enjoying rope. 10/10 would recommend.

The oral secretion collection is dependent on pigs chewing on a piece of cotton rope, and while some pigs LOVE the new toy, others just won’t bite (mainly the babi kampung, we’ve noticed.) The fecal specimens are collected by “convenience sampling,” but it’s not always convenient for us to reach, and sometimes the pigs get a bit too nosy when we’re swabbing. After we’ve collected five of each sample type, we rejoin the rest of the group and help with human nasal washes.

To answer what I’m sure is just one of many questions at this point, a nasal wash is a simple application of water into one nostril that the participant then expresses into a sample collection cup. A wash, in this scenario, provides a more comprehensive sample than a simple swab by getting into more of the nose’s nooks and crannies—again, glamourous stuff.  

Once we’re done, we bleach down and head back to the lab to process samples. The viruses we’re looking for are currently only known to infect pigs, but we’re looking to see if humans are at any risk of inhaling aerosolized virus. This study alone won’t prove infection, but it’s a pilot for future, more comprehensive studies.

Needless to say, it’s been a spectacular, albeit smelly summer. We’re still loving Sarawak and all the adventures (and food) it has to offer.  

Now, it’s time to hit the lab, and soak up what we can from our last three and a half weeks in Sarawak (the Borneo Cultural Festival begins in a few days and we’re very excited!).  

The Sibu Six are sure to make some exciting findings, so stay tuned for crunch-time updates!

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