Mohamed Z. Satti is one of the professors teaching HM101—An Introduction to Public Health. He is an expert in infectious diseases caused by parasites, infections transmitted from animals to humans, and also studies the connection between climate change and vector-borne diseases.
December 4, 2019
My first connection with Michigan State University was in Sudan, Africa, in 1984. As part of my undergraduate studies at the University of Khartoum, we were required to complete a comprehensive graduation project. I chose to work on infectious diseases—specifically, schistosomiasis also called bilharzia—in the MSU-NIH Sudan Medical Parasitology lab, which was recognized as one of the best labs in the Middle East and Africa. One of the PIs in that lab was Charles Mackenzie, who is now a retired MSU professor of veterinary pathology.
Twenty-seven years later, Dr. Mackenzie contacted me and invited me to come to MSU to help with a river blindness project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
I joined the MSU Department of Pathology and Diagnostic Investigation in 2011 as a research scientist and also began teaching parasitology courses as part of the online Master of Public Health (MPH) program. This led to my developing several courses for the MPH program.
Applied Research Is My Passion
Applied research has always been my passion. One focus of my work is zoonotic infections—infections that can be transmitted from animals to humans. There are nearly 70 million dogs and more than 150 million cats (half of them are owned, and the other half are outdoors) in the United States—two companion animals that can easily continue transmission of zoonotic infections. We can’t control something like this without studying it, to know the degree to which it exists and how it is transmitted. Only then can we interfere and break the cycle.
Another focus of my research is the connection between climate change and vector-borne diseases. Many infectious diseases, such as Lyme disease and West Nile Virus, are transmitted through vectors, such as mosquitoes or ticks. These diseases are affected by the surrounding environment and conditions. For example, some diseases don’t survive in lower-temperature environments. But with climate change, we are afraid of the change in transmission. We must keep monitoring these types of situations. We don’t want, for example, to reestablish malarial transmission in this country. It was eliminated from the United States a long time ago. Elimination means that the disease still exists on Earth, but it has been removed entirely from a particular area. Eradication means the disease has been removed from the Earth altogether. Our goal is to eradicate some of the eradicable infectious diseases worldwide.
A unique aspect of my work that I’m most proud of took place during my Ph.D. work in Denmark; I was able to modify a histamine-release test, which was described by a well-known Danish scientist—Dr. Per Stahl Skov. He gave me full support in a collaborative program between Sudan, Copenhagen University and the Danish Bilharziasis Laboratory. Such support enabled me to modify the histamine test to study two of the neglected infectious diseases. The studies will allow us to determine which immune responses are helping the patient to resist infection and which ones are helping in the progress of the disease and the pathogenesis. I want to establish a project here that would enable me to do work at MSU using this technique to study some microbial infections of significance in the United States, such as hydatid disease, which is acquired from dogs.
Research and Teaching Go Hand-in-Hand
Today, most of my time is spent teaching. I am one of a group of professors teaching HM101—An Introduction to Public Health. The course has become very popular as the interest in public health has increased. Several hundred undergraduate students are enrolled each semester.
I always say, “The best way to learn is through appropriate exposure. And the best way to teach is through appropriate interaction with the students.” You need to make sure that everyone listening to you is getting the message that you want to deliver.
I believe that research and teaching go hand-in-hand. This enables you to develop yourself and renew yourself. I try, whenever possible, to share with my students my own research experiences. Satisfaction comes from being able to share your knowledge with students, and seeing how that affects their lives and makes a difference for them.
To be fair to the students, you have to equip yourself with excellent teaching skills. At MSU, there are so many chances for professors and instructors to develop higher skills. Training opportunities are always available. Student feedback is also essential to me. It helps me improve my courses. I take every comment very seriously.
Helping the Body Defend against Invaders
The samples I collected as a graduate student in Sudan in 1985 were recently moved to MSU. These samples were collected from patients followed over a very long period of time—before and after treatment with ivermectin and praziquantel for river blindness and bilharzia. My students here at MSU will be able to use these samples to study protective/pathological immune responses to these diseases.
Cytokines and antibodies help the body defend against invaders. While some of them help the body to fight infection, others are part of the pathogenicity of such infection. Our studies are aiming at identifying these responses and giving more insight into the pathways of the protection/pathogenesis of the disease. This could lead to the identification of vaccine candidates.
Vaccine development is a very important goal. Public health is all about helping groups and communities. The link between applied work and public health aims at trying to find responses that will help us control infections within populations. The best way to fight infectious diseases is by developing vaccines, which will lead to the development of herd immunity and the interruption of the transmission cycle.
One scientist may not solve the whole problem, but each of us can contribute to the solution. I may see a solution to some of the infectious diseases in my lifetime—or I may not. We are all continuing to work, and we each leave our fingerprint whenever possible. This will help in the forward movement of the cycle until we reach a solution.
Mohamed Z. Satti, a faculty member in the College of Human Medicine’s Division of Public Health, is an expert in infectious diseases, particularly those caused by parasites. After receiving his undergraduate degree and his M.Sc. from the University of Khartoum, Sudan, he completed his Ph.D. degree at Copenhagen University, Denmark. He conducted research and taught in Sudan, the Cayman Islands, Denmark, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia and at Cambridge University in England before joining the MSU faculty in 2011.