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A Passion for Biology

By SHEREEN ANN ALI. Published in T&T Newsday, Sunday, July 14, 2013,  to celebrate Dr Tikasingh's achievements in the year he received an honorary doctorate from The University of the West Indies, St Augustine campus, Trinidad.

Under a high-powered microscope, the organism that causes yellow fever looks innocent – just like a piece of abstract art. But yellow fever is not an easy way to die. High spiking fever, icy chills, vomiting and bone-wracking pain are a few of the symptoms of this deadly disease, which is caused by a tiny virus spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. Back in 1978, there was an outbreak of Yellow Fever in Trinidad. Dr Elisha Tikasingh, soon to receive an honorary doctorate from UWI for his valuable work in parasitology, was part of the team which investigated it.

“A friend of mine was working on an oil rig, and came to visit me one day straight from the rig,” recalls Tikasingh. “He told me: ‘Boy, a lotta monkeys dying in Guayaguayare Forest.’ I immediately suspected yellow fever, and alerted the Epidemiology Department, the Forestry Division, Insect Vector Control and Veterinary Public Health officials.”  

Mosquitoes transmit the yellow fever virus back and forth between monkeys, humans or both. Dr Tikasingh remembers going into the forest as part of the investigating team. “At one site, we saw pieces of skin from a Howler money, and collected mosquito samples from that site. Further on, we found a dead monkey, and collected more mosquito samples. After testing, both the monkey and the mosquitoes were found to have the yellow fever virus,” remembers Tikasingh.

A quick, concerted response from public health authorities led to the first islandwide vaccination programme in 1978/79, and prevented mass human infection.

It wasn’t always known that many diseases, including yellow fever, dengue and malaria, were caused by viruses transmitted by insects. The technical term for this field is “arbovirology” - viruses transmitted by arthropods, i.e. insects like mosquitoes and ticks. Dr Tikasingh is one of the few research specialists in arboviruses in Trinidad. Now retired, his research in arbovirology, and the resulting public health benefits, is the reason for his upcoming UWI honour.

“I feel very humbled that UWI is giving me an honorary doctorate,” said Tikasingh in an interview on Tuesday. When Tikasingh was a younger man, there was no place to study parasitology – or arbovirology – in Trinidad. For that, he had to go to the States. But that education was not an easy, or automatic, journey. Indeed, in the 1940s, he never imagined he would have had the opportunity or means for an advanced academic career.

“I was born in the bush,” says Tikasingh, who was born in St Julien’s Village near Princes Town. His father, Butler Tikasingh, came to Trinidad from India in 1902 aboard the ship called “Clyde.” And the family had limited means.

“My father came to Trinidad at the age of seven. From the age of 17, he worked on the Bueno Intento Estate. In a short time, the Canadian missionaries realised he had had some high school, and ‘grabbed’ him. He became a catechist, or unordained minister, in the Presbyterian Church….Later, I was able to go to school at Naparima College, San Fernando, because my father was a catechist; because for catechists, education was free. If it were not for that, I would not have been educated at all.”

Tikasingh recalls that back then, primary school students had no uniform, and often, no shoes either.

“I walked to the Canadian Mission primary school every day, barefooted, five miles to and fro,” he says. “I remember on one occasion, I had to sing in the school choir. I don’t know why they asked me, because I couldn’t sing! But the head teacher said that all choir members must wear shoes. I told my mother I would not go to school that day. My mother promised me my father would go to Princes Town and buy some shoes for me, and bring them to the school. So I went to school; but the shoes never arrived! I was the only one on stage with no shoes.”

“I never thought of going further than secondary school. In those days, after school, you either became a teacher, you entered the Civil Service, or you went abroad to study medicine, dentistry or law. After I graduated from 6th form, I taught at Fyzabad Canadian Mission School for two years. Then a friend from Tunapuna visited us and gave me the address of a college in the US where you could both work and study.”

He’s come a long way since those days, through hard focused work and some lucky breaks. His childhood passion for biology led to a BSc degree, and later, an MA in Biology at Boston University (1955). By 1960, he’d earned a doctorate in Invertebrate Zoology at Oregon State University. Much of that time, he was also working as a teaching assistant to the lecturers, to earn his keep. A scholarship from the University of Washington also helped. He discovered a new genus and two new species of parasite while studying in Washington State.

After his studies, Tikasingh was selected to be interviewed by the Rockefeller Foundation for a fellowship to study arboviruses in Trinidad. His interviewer was none other than Max Theiler, an internationally eminent virologist who won the Nobel Prize in 1951 for his breakthrough discovery that yellow fever was caused by a virus.

Tikasingh pursued his career at both the Trinidad Regional Virus Laboratory (TRVL) and the Caribbean Epidemiology Centre (CAREC). He described new diseases such as the “Nariva Virus” and the “Restan Virus”. When CAREC was founded in 1975, he became a PAHO scientist. He established the Centre’s Parasitology / Entomology Unit and served as its head. He investigated outbreaks of malaria, eastern equine encephalitis and yellow fever in the Caribbean.

The most outstanding contribution made to science by Dr Tikasingh was the development of a technique for the production of large amounts of hyperimmune ascitic fluids in mice which were used to identify arboviruses in mice. This procedure was at one time a standard technique in arbovirology around the world.

Dr Tikasingh has received many awards for his work, including the Distinguished Service Award in Recognition of Outstanding Contributions to Public Health from the Caribbean Public Health Association (1994), the Award for Outstanding Service to Medical Technology from the Caribbean Association of Medical Technologists (1995) and the Award for Excellence for Outstanding Scientific Achievements in Entomology, Parasitology and Virology from the Caribbean Health Research Council (2001).

He remains modest, saying:

“My inspiration comes from my parents. My father worked hard, and my mother’s faith in me was unshakeable. My greatest achievement is my own family.”

His advice to young aspiring microbiologists?

“If you’re interested in this field, pursue it vigorously. I enjoyed what I was doing, and got paid for it. So enjoy it. Also, learn to get along with people. Most research is all about teamwork.”

In his free time, Dr Tikasingh is an active member of the TT Field Naturalists Club, and edits its annual “Living World” journal. His passion for the natural world is as strong as ever, and he remarks with a grin:

“You could take the boy out of the bush, but you can’t take the bush out of the boy.”

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