Her name is Alicia Rojas Araya, she is a scientist at the Faculty of Microbiology of the University of Costa Rica (UCR) and at 32 years old she already holds one of the most prestigious awards in the international arena for her studies in parasites: the Odile Bain Memorial.
This recognition, in honor of the French parasitologist Odile Bain, and which is only received by those scientists considered to be the most outstanding in this field of study, has been awarded annually since 2014 by the renowned scientific journal Parasites & Vectors, in association with the company French Animal Health Boehringer Ingelheim.
On this occasion, the high quality of Dr. Rojas’ research carried out in Israel for six years , where she even discovered a new species of parasite, made her surpass six other applicants from renowned institutions in Switzerland, Brazil, Italy, Egypt, Chile and China.
But not only that. The rigor of her studies, which once again give praise to Costa Rican scientific talent outside the borders, also allowed her to share the mention with two other great international scientists: Dr. Adnan Hodžic, from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Dr. Angela M Ionică, from Romania.
“As a woman, this award represents a great privilege because it is in honor of the scientist Odile Bain. She had significant challenges and still managed to leave a strong legacy in the field of parasitology. As a UCR professional, the recognition is a great motivation to rejoin the Faculty and, as a person, the award is a way to make visible all the family and professional effort made in Israel for years”, said the specialist.
For Dr. Gad Baneth, director of the Koret School of Veterinary Medicine in Israel, where Dr. Rojas did her doctorate under his supervision, Alicia can only be described with one word: “outstanding.” This was one of the main reasons why he himself decided to apply to Odile Bain for her.
“Alicia’s capabilities combine the knowledge and skills necessary to describe parasite morphology and structure, with the use of advanced molecular and bioinformatic techniques to analyze genomes. She was an exceptional student and, in addition to that, she is a very friendly and outgoing person, who was always happy to help other students and who was very loved by all the members of the laboratory”, emphasized Dr. Baneth.
Love for science
What led Dr. Rojas to be one of the people chosen for the recognition was her overall performance in parasitology. She has studied nearly eight different organisms that affect horses, dogs, and cats.
However, from all her work, there are two types of parasitic worms that stand out. The first is Spirocerca lupi, a generator of cancer in dogs and the protagonist of her doctoral thesis. The second is the discovery of the species Spirocerca vulpis, which was successfully carried out in 2018.
“The studies in S. lupi started because there was not much information about this parasite. So in my PhD I focused on elucidating certain aspects of the life cycle and studying their DNA. With the study of the DNA, and the careful review of the morphology of the parasite, we were able to recognize that there were different parasites distributed in Asia, Africa and Europe. This led us to describe a new species: S. vulpis, which we found in European red foxes”, Dr. Rojas explained.
- lupi is one of the few parasites that causes cancer in vertebrate animals and, if not treated in time, the infection can be fatal. Thus, Dr. Rojas was in charge of characterizing the molecules that this organism releases to interact with its host, which allowed improving the understanding of invasion and pathogenesis in dogs. With the analysis of certain DNA sequences, the diagnosis and recognition of new areas where the worm lives inside the domestic animal was improved.
In the case of S. vulpis, its discovery was momentous and marked a milestone in the world’s scientific heritage. The parasite that many scientists described as S. lupi was wrong. Alicia discovered, thanks to her study in red foxes from Spain, Italy, as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina, that it was another very similar but different species, which she later named S. vulpis.
For 32 years, Dr. Rojas has an exemplary scientific career. Before leaving for Israel, the researcher had already investigated other parasites in dogs such as Dirofilaria immitis, which represents a real problem in Costa Rica.
“D. immitis causes zoonotic infections in humans. Therefore, it is important for animals and for humans, since in recent years the presence of the parasite has been recorded in human lungs. In this case, it is a mosquito that transfers the disease from dogs to humans, and the disease it generates is more aggressive in humans than in the dog,” said Dr. Rojas.
Other parasites she analyzed in Israel
One is Onchocerca lupi, which can cause conjunctivitis in dogs and people, Leishmania infantum, which causes skin lesions and vasculitis in canines; and Habronema muscae, which affects horses with open skin lesions. The latter is transmitted by flies.
Cat parasites were also on her list: Aelurostrongylus abstrusus and Troglostrongylus brevior. These organisms lodge in the lungs of the animal and generate a strong chronic cough, as well as a clear difficulty in breathing.
The young scientist returned with her family in July 2020 to Costa Rica and is currently working as a researcher and teacher in the Department of Parasitology, specifically, in the Medical Helminthology Section of the Faculty of Microbiology of the UCR.
Her studies will now focus on investigating relevant parasites in Costa Rica in both humans and animals. Similarly, she will continue with the investigation of S. lupi in accordance with the particularities of the country.
Alicia’s studies were given thanks to a scholarship for improving academic staff provided by the UCR. Dr. Rojas will receive a financial award and exemption from charges to publish an article in Parasites & Vectors magazine.