INSIDER BLOG

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Erica Neves,
Research Assistant, Programe in Emerging Infectious Diseases

The Insider: Erica joined Duke-NUS as a Research Assistant with the Program in Emerging Infectious Diseases (EID) in May 2012.  Her primary responsibility is identifying pathogens (a biological agent that causes diseases or illness to it’s host) present in the small mammals in Singapore. She reports to Professor Gavin Smith and her desk is located in the postdoc area on Level 9.

 

Erica and her two dogs, Lola and Bella

I was playing “Truth or Dare” and someone once asked me: “If you could have one superpower, what would it be?” Without hesitation, I answered: “To talk to animals.”

That answer says a lot about me. I grew up spending every school holiday in my family’s beach house in Brazil, where I was surrounded by nature and animals. At home, we always had pets: cats, dogs, chickens, parrots, rodents, fishes and even spiders. For as long as I could remember, I always wanted to study animals. Therefore there was never a doubt that when I finished high school and had to decide my future, I had to be a biologist. I joined an Ecology laboratory in the university where I studied ecology and the behavior of rodents. Since then, it has become my specialty field. I have always wanted to work with mammals and when I found out how awesome rats are, I never left them! Because of their size, abundance and relative easiness to work with them in the wild and in the lab, they make a perfect model to study pretty much everything-from evolution and taxonomy to behavior and diseases. 

In 2007, I had just completed my Masters in Ecology at the Federal University of Bahia (Brazil) and was planning to do my PhD at the University of California, Berkeley (USA) when destiny threw me a curveball. My longtime Singaporean friend visited Brazil for a holiday and after nine years of being pen pals, we finally met in person. That meeting changed my life and my plans radically.

I came to Singapore for the first time the following year to visit him and we decided it would be easier for me to move here because I could speak English and pursue my scientific career here. In August that year, I moved to Singapore and worked as a marketing executive and environmental consultant for a local publishing company. The job was really exciting and I had the opportunity to travel frequently! I visited places that I could never imagine going in my entire life, such as Bahrain, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.

However, I had to go back to the field my heart desired–Science! In January 2010, I got a job as a full-time teaching assistant at the Biological Science Department at the National University of Singapore. I really enjoyed teaching and bringing the students on field trips, but I knew I had to do my PhD in order to move forward. 

In October 2011 destiny played a role again. I met Dr. Ian Mendenhall (Program in EID) during the third Biodiversity of Singapore Symposium organized by Dept. Biological Sciences, NUS. He said he was working on a project to develop an ecological niche risk model to ascertain areas of high pathogen prevalence in Singapore, and wished to include rodents and other small mammals but lacked the expertise. That’s it; there I was, looking for an exciting project for my PhD. 

In the same year, I married my special Singaporean friend. We had two weddings- Brazilian and Hindu. It was most amazing moment of our lives.

Erica’s colorful Hindu wedding in Singapore

In January this year, I embarked on my PhD at NUS under the supervision of Dr David Bickford (Evolutionary Ecology and Conservation Lab - NUS). My research project investigates the disease risks from small-mammals borne pathogens in Singapore, merging field and laboratory work. In the middle of projects involving mostly lab work with the Dengue virus, I am often questioned about what I do and why I am always covered in mud. In order to collect samples from wild animals and to understand ecological aspects of diseases, you do need to get down and dirty out there! I feel so lucky because I can combine my passion for animals with a direct application of studying diseases that pose a significant public health challenge. 

 

Erica with a common treeshrew (pictured below) in her hand

  

My work is a big part of my life…..and it is who I am. I truly believe in a saying by Confucius: “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

Erica with colleagues from National Parks Singapore

They say home is where your heart is, and for me Singapore is not just a red dot on a map anymore – it is home! My husband says, I have become “too Singaporean” and jokes that I am an “Angmohporean” now. Well, that is kind of true!