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Serap Aksoy, PhD

Interim Department Chair and Professor of Epidemiology (Microbial Diseases); Acting Chair, Department of Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases

Appointments

Biography

Professor Aksoy is a tropical medicine researcher whose work focuses on the epidemiology of insect transmitted (vector borne) and zoonotic diseases. Her research has been on tsetse flies and the pathogenic parasites they transmit that cause highly neglected and fatal diseases of humans in Africa, known as Sleeping Sickness. Her laboratory focuses on deciphering the vector-parasite molecular dialogue and parasite development during the transmission process with the ultimate goal of identifying novel targets of interference and developing transmission blocking vaccines to reduce disease. Her fundamental and interdisciplinary work on tsetse and its microbial symbionts has identified key principles that shape host-microbe interactions. Her studies with tsetse's mutualistic microbes identified nutritional contributions that facilitate female fecundity and mediate host immune system development. Her studies with tsetse's commensal microbiota led to a novel biological method, coined as paratransgenesis, in which anti-parasitic molecules are synthesized in the beneficial gut microbes, thus making the gut environment inhospitable for disease causing parasites. Ability to spread such modified microbes into natural insect populations is being explored to reduce disease transmission as a novel biological method.

Dr. Aksoy maintains collaborative research activities with Yale researchers as well as with multiple universities and research institutes in Africa. Their studies in Kenya and Uganda investigate the epidemiology of Sleeping Sickness disease, with a focus on understanding the major drivers that sustain disease transmission, as well as on population genetics of flies and parasites and their microbiota. She initiated and led a large international consortium that eventually sequenced the genome of six tsetse fly species. This effort vastly expanded molecular knowledge and genomic resources on this neglected disease vector, and collectively expanded research capacity in bioinformatics and functional biology in many laboratories in sub-Sahara Africa. As the co-editor in Chief of the journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases between 2007-2020, she has been a major voice for building research and publication capacity for global neglected tropical diseases. Throughout her professional career, Aksoy has been an advocate of and innovator in Global Health; served as a dedicated mentor to students and scientists in the US and in Africa, China, Italy and Turkey helping to prepare the next generation of leaders in the fields of epidemiology and zoonotic disease control.

Education & Training

  • PhD
    Columbia University (1982)

Activities

  • Human African Trypanosomiasis Control
    Uganda 2012
    Develop innovative vector control for HAT
  • Tsetse Transmitted African Trypanosomiasis
    Kikuyu, Kenya 2011
    Tsetse transmitted Human African Trypanosomiasis (HAT) has re-emerged and poses a major public health crises in Sub Sahara. There are no vaccines and efficacious drugs for control of parasite infections in the mammalian host. In contrast, control of the vector insect tsetse populations can effectively break the disease cycle. Extensive resources have been generated in the developed country laboratories with respect to tsetse genomics/genetics that can immediately improve the existing vector control tools, while promising the development of future strategies. The ability of products resulting from high-tech research to reach field implementation stages requires the presence of endemic country scientists who are. well-informed in the full potential of the developed technologies, who can evaluate the pros and cons of these solutions, and who can present these perspectives to the general public and to the involved government agencies. In this training program, Yale University scientists are working with the Trypanosomiasis Research Center (TRC) in Kenya to strengthen the biomedical capacity and to acquire and implement the recent advances in applied vector genomics, genetics and bioinformatics to enhance the existing Human African Trypanosomiasis (HAT) control/management tools. TRC has been identified by a World Health Organization competitive initiative as the lead organization in Africa to coordinate the continent-wide capacity strengthening activities for HAT. A regional network (Eastern African Network of Trypanosomoses, EANETT) consisting of the lead institutions with governmental mandates to work on HAT in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Sudan and Malawi has already made considerable progress in building south-south initiatives. The specific objectives of this program are to: 1) Develop expertise at TRC and their associates to address mechanisms of parasite transmission biology, genetics of vector competence, population biology, and bioinformatics. 2) Strengthen collaborations with the laboratories in the endemic countries in Africa to enable transfer of new technologies and tools relevant for HAT control and promote their integration into the on-going disease control programs. 3) Develop training modules (seminars, workshops and mentored research activities) to increase research capacity for HAT in Africa with a specific focus on vector biology.
  • Evidence Based Control Strategies of Sleeping Sickness Vectors
    Kikuyu, Kenya 2011
    This Fogarty International Research Collaboration award (FIRCA) proposal is on tsetse fly population genetics in order to support the ongoing Human African Trypanosomiasis (HAT) control activities in East Africa. The parent grant (NIAID R01Al068932, 01/01/2008 to 12/31/2012) addresses the molecular and ecological aspects of the two HAT disease belts (gambiense and rhodesiense) in Uganda with a focus on population and evolutionary genetics of tsetse flies and their parasites and endosymbionts. The co- investigator of this FIRCA, Dr. Johnson Ouma, is an experienced tsetse population geneticist who is now the head of tsetse genomic research and Deputy Director of the national Trypanosomiasis Research Center (TRC) in Kenya. Kenya is at risk of HAT outbreaks due to ongoing epidemics in neighboring Uganda and increased movement of people and cattle (known reservoirs for Trypanosoma brucei rhodesiense). Earlier tsetse control efforts in the Lake Victoria basin and in the southern Rift Valley were unsustainable and these regions rapidly became repopulated. It is unknown if the extant G. pallidipes vector populations in Lambwe originated through reinvasion from neighboring populations, or through incomplete elimination of local populations that existed below thresholds of detection. Efforts are underway once again to eliminate G. pallidipes from Lambwe valley and surrounding areas. This project has three aims to: 1) estimate rates of gene flow and degrees of genetic differentiation among G. pallidipes populations around the Lake Victoria basin and in southern Rift Valley, 2) estimate local levels of temporal genetic differentiation and dynamics of G. pallidipes populations from the Lambwe and Nguruman valleys and 3) understand the circulating trypanosome parasite diversity isolated from flies/humans and known reservoir animals in the Lambwe valley. Results will help understand the breeding pattern of G. pallidipes populations in East Africa, and thus identify populations that can serve as potential sources of immigrants into Nguruman and Lambwe. This knowledge is important to the ongoing and planned tsetse control programs and can help develop methods for inclusion or exclusion of adjacent populations to the target population during vector suppression efforts. Knowledge on parasite strains in circulation will also help better understand disease risk and epidemiology.
  • Tsetse
    Kenya 2010
    Evolutionary Genetics of Tsetse and its Symbionts
  • Genetics - Yale-Fudan Collaborative Program
    China 2008
    The Yale-Fudan Collaborative Program is a co-training program between Yale and Fudan University. Within this program, pre- and postdoctoral students from the Genetics Department of Fudan University conduct research at Yale for a two-year period and return to China to receive their degrees from Fudan. Four students have received their doctoral degrees through this program and two post-doctoral fellows have completed training.

Honors & Recognition

AwardAwarding OrganizationDate
Elected Member to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS)National Academy of Sciences (NAS)2021
Award of Excellence for Research Towards ControlInternational Scientific Council for Trypanosomiasis Research and Control, African Union2019
Elected MemberConnecticut Academy of Science and Engineering2019
Research, Innovation and Leadership AwardConnecticut Technology Council2016
Honorary FellowEntomological Society of America2015
Fulbright ScholarUnited Stated Fulbright Commission2015
Honorary FellowAmerican Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene2014
Ambross Monell Foundation2006
Robert Leet and Clara Gutherie Patterson Trust Award2000
Culpeper Foundation Biomedical Initiative Award1998
Columbia University Graduate Scholar Award1978
National Science Foundation Presidential Award for Undergraduate Research1977

Departments & Organizations