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Harding Distinguished Postgraduate Scholars Programme


  Sandy Hickson


  Genetics, Sidney Sussex

  PhD thesis: Decoding Dengue: Mapping the Genetic Basis of Resurgent Dengue Transmission by the Mosquito
  Vector, Aedes aegypti



Research interests:

  1. Quantitative Genetics – studying traits and their underlying genes to understand the genetic and environmental factors influencing their variation in populations.
  2. Epidemiology – Looking at the patterns and determinants of health and disease conditions in specific populations.
  3. Biotechnology research – Cultured meats, gene therapies and AI drug discovery have the potential to build a radically better world.
  4. Global Catastrophic Biological Risk (GCBR) research – Mitigating the existential risks that result from the development of transformative biotechnologies.

Dengue fever and other important ‘arboviruses’, which are transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, have not previously posed a serious threat to public health in Africa. This is thought to be because Africa contains the ancestral subspecies of the Ae. aegypti mosquito, which hasn’t specialised to feed on humans and is therefore not as effective at transmitting disease. However, invasive Ae. aegypti mosquitos, which are human specialists and therefore very effective at transmitting arboviruses, have recently been observed on the east-coast of Kenya. Alarmingly, this has coincided with a sudden increase in the transmission of dengue fever and other arbovirus. During my PhD project I will collect mosquitoes from across East Africa, to map the prevalence and risk posed by dengue. Leveraging genetic analyses, I'll discern the spread of this invasive mosquito subspecies and detect any resistance to insecticides, our primary defence. In addressing this emerging crisis, I hope my research can improve the efficacy of future public health interventions.

Who or what inspired you to pursue your research interests?

In high school, I was deeply motivated by Richard Dawkins', ‘The Selfish Gene’. His work describes how a primordial soup of organic compounds gave rise to the minute self-replicating building blocks driving the evolutionary forces of life. In university, I delved deeper into the complexities that have arisen from these evolutionary forces through the study of genetics. During this time, I came across the works of the moral philosopher John Rawls. Rawls challenges his readers to look at the world through a ‘veil of ignorance’, which is to ignore our evolved predisposition to favour kin or tribe and instead view everyone as equally worthy of a healthy and prosperous life. This simple philosophical perspective has radical implications and has greatly influenced my research trajectory.