Alda Alumni: Brian Foy
Brian grew up in Indianapolis in “a big, loud Catholic family full of actresses” and was drawn to science at a young age. After falling in love with research and fieldwork as an undergraduate, he moved on to the Tropical Medicine department at Tulane University, where he began researching malaria-infected mosquitoes. Brian is now a professor at Colorado State University, where his work focuses on insect-transmitted diseases. In October, he attended the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Solvathon in Berlin and participated in his first Alda Center training.
How did you first get involved with science?
As a kid, I was always exploring the woods and creek with a friend. His dad was a self-taught naturalist and he helped foster our interest in discovery. At Notre Dame, I was on a pre-med track, but I had a luminary teacher, Dr. George Craig, whose entomology class I took on a whim. Even though I failed to get into medical school, I took all of Dr. Craig’s classes and studied field entomology research for two summers up on the border between Upper Michigan and Wisconsin.
Tell me a little about your current research.
I’m interested in how mosquitoes and other arthropods spread diseases through their habit of drinking our blood and how we might use this habit against them to prevent disease transmission. I want to bring our ideas to translation so that we can control human (and animal) diseases and save lives. We recently published a major study in The Lancet in which we demonstrated that an old drug we have been studying could be repurposed to kill malaria carrying mosquitoes that bite treated people. We showed that when villages in Burkina Faso were treated with this drug en masse, the children had 20% fewer cases of malaria over the rainy season.
For a lot of Americans, epidemics like malaria and the Zika virus are a distant concern. What should the public understand about the work that you’re doing?
The spread of infectious diseases, epidemics, and pandemics is an existential threat to communities, nations, and even humanity. We once were arrogant enough to think that infectious diseases were on the verge of being solved, but many are difficult to control with our current tools. Disease-carrying parasites and bacteria are becoming more resistant to our best drugs and new ones are emerging with increasing frequency, primarily from the mass movement of humans across the globe. Arthropod-borne diseases are especially pernicious because they are quickly spread from bloodsucking insects and ticks. To successfully control these diseases, we not only need to attack them in our own borders but in other countries, because these pathogens and vectors don’t respect borders.
How is communication relevant to your work?
It’s huge. I’ve done a fair amount of public speaking, mostly in academic settings, but sometimes to lay audiences in the community too. I love telling people interesting stories that weave in tales of scientific curiosity and discovery. Good communication helps you convince policymakers and funders of the importance of the problem. It educates people about the fascinating stories that exist at the intersection of the present moment, recent human history, and infectious diseases. It informs both our colleagues and the public about how our work is successful in understanding and controlling these diseases.
What was your experience at the Alda Workshop in Berlin like?
I loved it. Being around actors and professional communicators again (like some of my family) was a joy… how they enliven communication! I love the freedom of expression that improv affords. One of the most valuable aspects of the training was the ice-breaking exercises. They allowed our innovation team to open up and communicate effectively. The strategies for bringing my lab group together to solve problems will be very useful to me. So will the ideas about how to simplify communication of your work and present ideas to different audiences.
How can improvisation and the principles of "yes, and" benefit scientists?
Improv helps us think about and respond to interesting and odd questions that people have about our work when we try and communicate it to them, especially questions that we are totally unprepared for. The concept behind the “Yes, and” exercise helps us sharpen the brainstorming dialogues we often have with colleagues, enabling us to build upon each other’s ideas and unite around a common goal.