Rebecca Rubinstein

Rebeca is an MD/PhD student currently in her third year of the epidemiology PhD at UNC Chapel Hill. She studies the impact of maternal genetics and human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) in breastmilk on enteric health outcomes in young children, including rotavirus vaccine immunogenicity, the burden of diarrhea and enteric infections, and gut microbiome formation. HMOs may explain why oral vaccines perform more poorly in countries from the Global South and differences in diarrheal risk between children with similar environmental exposures. As a Ben Kean Fellow, she will spend three months in León, Nicaragua, measuring seroconversion to live oral rotavirus vaccine in infants and potential associations with HMO composition. In 2023, she also will continue working in Nicaragua as a predoctoral fellow in the UJMT Fogarty Global Health Fellowship. She is mentored by her dissertation chair, Dr. Sylvia Becker-Dreps, and her Nicaraguan PIs, Drs. Filemón Bucardo and Samuel Vilchez. Dr. Becker-Dreps, Dr. Bucardo and Dr. Vilchez have collaborated for the past 15 years, researching enteric infections in Nicaraguan children and training young Nicaraguan investigators in an NIH D43-funded PhD program, the first of its kind in the country. Her clinical interests include pediatrics, infectious diseases and gastroenterology in a global health context. She is especially interested in the intersection of infectious diseases and nutrition in young children. In her free time, she loves to run, crochet, travel and visit museums and historic sites wherever she is traveling.

Impact of Maternal FUT2 Expression and Human Milk Oligosaccharides on Oral Rotavirus Vaccine Immunogenicity and Diarrhea in Nicaragua

What does the Kean Fellowship mean to you?
I was thrilled to be selected as a Kean Fellow, as it was the first dedicating funding I received to work on my dissertation! Receiving this fellowship encouraged me that I have what it takes to pursue a career in academic global health and that there is a lot of potential behind the project my team and I proposed. Receiving the Kean Fellowship allows me to work in person with our team in Nicaragua, observe cohort household visits and better understand the cultural context of our cohort, and allows me to attend my first in-person TropMed conference of my career! I am excited to connect with the rest of the Kean fellows online and at TropMed, and am thrilled to have this opportunity.

What do you anticipate learning?
Over my fellowship, I hope to grow technically, professionally and personally. I am excited to learn how capture ELISAs work and how they are optimized. I am also learning to conduct exploratory and confirmatory factor analysis to simplify HMO composition as an exposure, given that we collected concentrations of 19 unique HMOs! This will allow us to model HMO exposure in longitudinal models of enteric health outcomes. Professionally, I'm also managing several projects right now, at various stages of completion. I've always wanted to improve my time management and leadership skills, and this fellowship is the perfect opportunity to do so. I'm also excited to become comfortable presenting my research in Spanish and working in a laboratory in Spanish. Personally, each time I travel for a long period of time is a challenge to adapt to the culture and see my own way of living in a new light. So, I am looking forward to immersing myself in Nicaraguan culture and history, and making new friends from the area.

What interests you about tropical medicine and what problems are you interested in solving?
It's funny, because I ended up working in an area of global health very similar to the one that first drew me to the field! When I first learned about global health careers in college, I was learning how climate and environmental exposures, like water and soil-borne infections, can impact childhood nutritional status and growth. To that end, I am still interested in understanding how factors beyond food security impact child nutrition, growth and development. The causes and complications of childhood diarrhea are complex and multifaceted; however I would love to help come up with a biomarker, screening tool or intervention that improves childhood nutrition and enteric health.