Biology and International Studies Undergraduate Lucy Brown spends academic year studying the Zika virus in Peru


    Lucy Brown has always had an interest in women’s and maternal health. After locating Dr. Theresa J Ochoa through her publications on the breastmilk protein, Lactoferrin, Brown found out Ochoa had begun working on a study focused on the Zika virus infection during pregnancy She emailed Ochoa saying she was interested in becoming involved in the project and the opportunity took off from there.

    “I want to emphasize to students looking into programs and internships that it can be long and painstaking to find one, but it’s really, truly worth the effort to persevere and keep looking,” Brown said. “All it takes is one person to believe that you’re qualified and diligent enough to work for them.”

    Brown said she emailed over 50 researchers in Central and South America to find a principal investigator that would accept her and only one of them responded.

    “When I was in Bloomington, I worked in a cell biology and genetics lab with yeast cells,” Brown said. “Even though the topic of that research was completely different than what I do now, that experience prepared me enormously for the world of research.”

    Brown said during her first week in Peru, she was asked to extract viral RNA from blood samples to check for the presence of Zika, dengue, and chikungunya.

    “I had already learned how to extract DNA from yeast cells in my old lab, and so it felt very familiar doing similar experiments,” Brown said.

    The internship has given her the chance to travel back and forth, between Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia in the capital city of Lima, Peru, and La Clinica Selva Amazonica in Iquitos, Peru; a large, jungle city that one cannot travel to by car.

    There, Brown said much of her work is focused on analyzing samples from pregnant women and their infants for the presence of various genitalia diseases, including doing several biologicals assays on saliva, blood, serum, and plasma.

    “In Iquitos, we actually collect the samples and conduct physical, auditory, ophthalmologic and eco-graphic exams on the infants,” Brown said. “In addition to that, I have been tasked with writing a protocol on E. coli and parasites to start a new study for next semester.”

Brown said Spanish courses at IU have also helped prepare her extensively for the internship in Peru.

    “Here, Americans are known for not learning others’ languages and just expecting everyone else to speak English so even though my Spanish is far from perfect, Peruvians are still really impressed,” Brown said. “In fact, I’ve found that it’s really valuable in science to have someone who is a native English speaker because so many articles are published in English. Dr. Ochoa even has me review several of her papers to check her English grammar.”

    Brown received funding for her internship in Peru from a variety of sources.  

    “I applied for and received 3 separate grants in order to fund this experience,” Brown said. “With that money, I have been able to live with basic amenities for a month in Lima, and now for the past 3 months in the Amazonian city of Iquitos.  In January, I also was able to attend an international medical conference in Quito, Ecuador on climate change and health.”

    Brown said experiences working with patients who have diseases that are extremely rare to contract in the United States have been the most impactful on her. Some of these patients have illnesses such as tuberculosis, cat scratch fever, HIV, Zika and yellow fever.

    “Overall, writing my own protocol has been quite an experience, and learning how to get the study approved by the National Institutes of Health, and the Ethics Committee at the university in Lima,” Brown said. “In terms of my Spanish, I don’t know if my actual ability to speak Spanish has gotten better, but my confidence has certainly improved and that makes all the difference.”

    Students interested in pursuing international research projects and finding funding for projects can make an appointment with Paul Fogleman in the Office of National Scholarships and Awards. Email or look for him in the Student Appointment Scheduler (SAS). For more information on how to become involved in internships at IU, please visit