Orange Alert

Skip to main content
Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

Tracking Dengue Fever

Anna Stewart '07 travels to Ecuador on Fulbright grant

Aug. 2, 2011, by Judy Holmes

Anna Stewart '07 surveys residents in Ecuador for research project on dengue fever.
Anna Stewart '07 surveys residents in Ecuador for research project on dengue fever.
Anna Stewart ’07 grew up in a family of scientists. In fact, her parents met while conducting research in the Ecuadoran Amazon.  Today, the 25-year-old College of Arts and Sciences graduate is emerging as a distinguished scientist in her own right. She recently returned from Ecuador, where she spent the past year exploring the social and ecological factors that are contributing to the spread of dengue fever in the tropics and along the U.S. Gulf Coast.  Her research is supported by the prestigious Fulbright U.S. Student Program scholarship.

Established in 1946, the Fulbright Program is the flagship international exchange program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. The program provides students, scholars, teachers, artists, and scientists the opportunity to study, teach and conduct research, exchange ideas and contribute to finding solutions to shared international concerns.

Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in ecology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) in Syracuse.  She is also pursuing a master’s degree in public administration at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.  As an undergraduate, Stewart majored in biology with a focus on environmental science.  Her current career path blends areas about which she is most passionate—applying science to issues of social justice.

“I want to apply my understanding of ecological and social systems to improve the well-being of future generations through sustainable development,” says Stewart, who graduated Suma Cum Laude with Honors.  “I hope my training in ecology and public administration will enable me to bridge the worlds of science and policy.”

No stranger to scientific fieldwork, Stewart grew up accompanying her father, SUNY-ESF Professor Donald Stewart, on his trips to the Ecuadoran Amazon.  As an undergraduate, she took six months off to join biology Professor Douglas Frank’s research team in Yellowstone National Park to study grasslands.  She developed her findings into her Honor’s Thesis, which was later published in the scientific journal Oecologia with Stewart as first author.

Stewart’s current work, builds on a 2008 pilot project supported by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Co., and the Ecuadorian Ministry of Health.  Ecuador’s Vice Minister of the Environment Mercy Borbor Cordova, a former student of Stewart’s SUNY-ESF faculty advisor, Professor Charles Hall, initiated the pilot. Stewart joined the team as a field, research assistant shortly after graduating from SU. 

“I went to Ecuador and fell in love with the project,” says Stewart. “I planned to go abroad after graduation and had been accepted into the Peace Corps.  I changed my plans and began graduate studies at ESF with support from a National Science Foundation GK-12 Fellowship and an opportunity to further this project.”

Dengue fever is a mosquito-borne viral disease that is related to West Nile Virus and Yellow Fever. The disease has become a major public health concern as the mosquitoes and virus have spread into new areas, including an outbreak last summer in the Florida Keys and other areas along the Gulf Coast. Scientists believe the distribution of the disease may be influenced by climate change because the mosquitoes that transmit the disease are sensitive to changes in temperature and moisture. Poverty and urbanization may also play an important role, as the mosquitoes seem to inhabit urban areas.

Stewart is working with the Ecuadorian National Meteorological and Hydrological Institute to develop a climate model that explains the distribution of dengue fever. She is also working with the Ecuadorian Ministry of Health to explore the social factors that influence why some communities are at greater risk of the disease.

“As an undergraduate, I took a broad spectrum of classes in the social sciences, humanities, and law, many of which seemed unrelated to my natural sciences courses,” Stewart says.  “Looking back, this training prepared me well for an interdisciplinary career path.  I believe the big questions and problems our generation is facing require interdisciplinary thinkers. I hope to help create the solutions.”