Meet the Scientist: Adriana Tami

(Tropical doctor and Researcher)

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Dr. Adriana Tami, researcher at the department of Medical Microbiology of the UMCG, focuses on the Global burden of dengue fever and concentrates her work on the development of algorithms that are intended to help in a tropical setting with the diagnosis of dengue.

Dr. Tami was born in Caracas Venezuela as the child of Italian parents. She studied medicine in Venezuela at the Universidad de Carabobo, Valencia, and spent 1.5 years after her training as a tropical doctor in the Venezuelan Amazon - an experience that she considers one of the best of her life. Afterwards, she received two grants enabling her to go to London to pursue a Master and PhD at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. From 2001 to 2003, she worked as a medical researcher in Tanzania, Africa. In 2004, she moved to the Netherlands, to the KIT (Royal Tropical Institute) in Amsterdam where she worked for 3 years. Since 2009, she works in Groningen at the UMCG but regularly returns to Venezuela for field studies related to her current research topic.

Follow your heart and love and enjoy what you do

Why did you decide to study Medicine?
I was always interested in Biology and Medicine. That is why I started to study both Biology and Medicine in my first year of University. Then I decided to proceed with Medicine because I thought biology was always incorporated in it.

 What was the motivation for you to go to the Amazon and work as a tropical doctor?
 In our curriculum, we could decide to work one year in a rural area or for two years in a hospital in the city.  –To work with indigenous people and in the jungle fascinated me, I then decided to embark in this adventure and work in this enthralling environment as a tropical doctor.

In what way did the experience of working as a tropical doctor influence yourself and your work?
I worked within a small health center in the middle of the jungle. We did not have any access to infrastructure and were dependent on groceries and medicine  which were brought to us by helicopters or by boat. Our patients were mainly people from the indigenous groups Yanomami and Yekwana. In the mornings, we treated the patients that came to see us in our health centre and in the evening, we went with a boat to house visits. The patients there mainly suffered from parasitic and vector-borne diseases, primarily malaria and river blindness(onchocerciasis). Those experiences arose my interest in  doing research on malaria and tropical diseases.

Did you have to face any cultural difficulties?
We had a small language training before our work started and we learned the most useful expressions and words in Yanomami to run a consultation. We had our Yanomami primary health workers to help us communicate properly with everyone. Aside from us in the Amazon, Yanomami shamans treat and care for patients in a traditional manner. They believe that bad spirits are responsible for diseases and try to get rid of those by inhaling certain hallucinogens. Another commonly used remedy was the bark of the cinchona tree of which Quinine can be extracted (substance proven effective against malaria). As the Shamans are important among the population, we worked closely together and thereby were accepted by the patients. However, that meant that we had to accept their methods as well and if a patient was very ill, we were not allowed to touch the patient anymore. Even though we might have cured them.

What research project are you currently working on?
At the moment, my Venezuelan research team and I work in collaboration with other research centers in Latin America, Asia and the European Union to develop a clinical algorithm that can help in the prompt diagnosis of dengue at health center level. We are still collecting a lot of data to predict what symptoms are most likely connected with dengue and not with other febrile diseases. The end product is supposed to be a flow chart that supports the medical workers with identifying dengue patients. Due to my experiences as a tropical doctor, it is important for me to do research that is closely related to patients and that can help in a practical way – like the algorithm we are currently developing.

Based on your own experiences, what advice can you give medical students on their way?
Follow your heart and love and enjoy what you do.

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