Arita Alija

CurioCity
2 August 2017

Arita Alija

Fourth year undergraduate student at the University of Waterloo, majoring in Biomedical Science and minoring in Classical Studies & Medical Physiology

Tell us about yourself

I was born in Kosovo, a small country in the Balkans, in the city of Prishtina. My family moved to Canada because my father worked with the Canadian and American military. We now live in London, Ontario because it is a beautiful city, and because that’s where my father got his residency placement at the Schulich School of Medicine. I attend the University of Waterloo, so I travel a lot between London and Waterloo. I love to draw for fun, learn new languages, occasionally play some video games, and keep on top of current scientific literature.

What is your research about?

I do clinical research. This means that my research involves human participants. My research is about how a virus named Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV) causes a disease called infectious mononucleosis (IM). IM is sometimes called “the kissing disease” because it can be transmitted by saliva.

I’m looking at cases of EBV affecting children, and how the symptoms and signs associated with EBV can sometimes look like other diseases. For example, EBV can mimic Kawasaki disease, a systemic inflammatory condition that affects the coronary vessels in children. It is important to distinguish the two because the treatment of Kawasaki disease is different from that of EBV. Missed Kawasaki disease can lead to the ballooning of the arteries that feed the heart of the child affected, and can even cause heart attacks if it is unrecognized and not treated properly.

What have you enjoyed the most about your research?

I enjoy being able to delve into previous clinical cases in literature. This gives me the opportunity to learn about different presentations of the condition I’m working with in terms of clinical features (signs and symptoms) and laboratory markers (proteins or other molecules that show up on blood tests). Reading about other cases offers insight into some truly unique conditions and the different (and sometimes unusual) ways in which diseases can manifest.

Doing research gives you the chance to contribute to the existing body of knowledge in a certain area. Perhaps one day what you discover in the lab or the clinic will be a key piece of information for another researcher, clinician, person affected by a disease, and their family.

What have you found most challenging about your research?

One of the many challenges of research is finding literature that is relevant to your area of interest, especially if it is too specific, or if the information that you are looking for is scarce. However, the latter shows shows you that your research is needed, especially if no similar cases have been published yet. To get the most accurate results, you may have to get creative with your search methods and what keywords you use in databases.

There is also the huge issue of a lot of scientific papers being hidden behind what we call ‘pay walls,’ which means that you have to pay money to access the full paper. You also need to access up-to-date scientific and medical databases to obtain the relevant information for your research.

How has your research experience influenced your career path?

I have really enjoyed researching childhood inflammatory conditions. It has definitely opened my eyes to a new area of research that I would love to eventually be a part of in my professional career. I will likely continue down this path either as a clinician or a researcher (or both, as a clinician-researcher!). I haven't decided yet, but that is the beauty of having lots of options!

How has your research impacted the world?

I think my research will expand people’s understanding of how EBV can manifest, and why certain symptoms may develop over others in certain individuals. It may lead to a better understanding of how to recognize and distinguish complicated cases of EBV-caused infectious mononucleosis from other serious non-infectious inflammatory conditions caused by an overactive immune system, such as Kawasaki disease.

What do you predict will be the next big breakthrough in your field of research?

I think the next big breakthrough in the field of infectious diseases will come from scientists understanding more about the molecular and immune mechanisms of how certain infections can cause systemic diseases like infectious mononucleosis, and why these infections recur in some people but not in others.

What motivates you to do research?

I’ve known for a while that I wanted to do research. Being in a science program, my curiosity for how things work has only increased and further driven my desire to do research. My molecular biology professor had always encouraged me to look into doing research and I am happy I have had the opportunity to do so. I am motivated to keep looking at the bigger picture – the more information we publish on EBV and related diseases, the more we can see commonalities and differences in the presentation of various childhood diseases.

Tell us about your 'Eureka' moment

My most important realization wasn’t a moment, but something I learned over time with my research. My current project has shown me the complexities of childhood inflammatory illnesses. Specifically, it’s a huge challenge for physicians (doctors) to properly identify the cause of some childhood illnesses because many of them present with nonspecific symptoms - for example, fever, headache, and weight loss.

Sometimes there are unusual complications caused by a disease. This is a big issue because delayed treatment of a disease can lead to a worse outcome. This is why I am passionate about these inflammatory illnesses and will stick with it in terms of future research projects.

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