Benjamin Rice is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. He began working with the MAHERY team in Madagascar in 2014, and has focused on the ecology and evolution of malaria transmission in rural communities. In conjunction with Dr. Golden (his doctoral co-advisor), he was the primary lead of a cross-sectional study of 24 communities across four regions in Madagascar (enrolling approximately 6,000 subjects) to study the intersection of environmental change, nutritional status, and disease emergence. Ben also serves on the MAHERY board as the Secretary. Please see below for a brief description of his background, research interests, motivation, and future goals.
Ben is originally from Denver, Colorado, born to parents that engrained globe-trotting, adventurous eating, and appreciating the natural wonders of the world as important habits from an early age. He studied microbiology and global health at Arizona State University and upon graduating in 2012 did a post-baccalaureate research fellowship with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) studying the genetics of the parasites that cause malaria. After which, Ben began studying ecology and evolutionary biology at Harvard University, co-advised by Dan Hartl and Christopher Golden, again focusing on malaria.
His research interests, broadly, stem from two observations.
The first observation is that global hotspots of biodiversity are geographically congruent with global hotspots of poverty and disease. This means that the communities living in and by those areas where the products of evolution are most spectacularly displayed, and most in need of preservation, often face a disproportionate burden of illness. This is abundantly clear in Madagascar where remarkably high diversity and endemism in its flora and fauna is paired with some of the highest global rates of malnutrition, poverty and environmental degradation.
The second observation is that the same evolutionary and ecological principles that are used to study the diversity of life can be used to better understand the pathogens responsible for the greatest challenges to human health. This is exemplified by malaria, where recent advances in evolutionary genetics and genomics analysis have allowed new ways to monitor malaria transmission and its control.
Ben is motivated to use malaria in Madagascar as a model to: (i) apply these new advances in genetic analysis of pathogens in Madagascar, (ii) further expand the toolkit of genetic and epidemiological analyses available so that we can better identify and understand the ecological drivers of disease transmission, (iii) enrich data streams so as to more rapidly monitor and improve disease control measures, and (iv) dramatically increase our awareness of the causes and consequences of poor health outcomes in the remote communities of Madagascar - communities that remain understudied or unstudied despite their crucial role to conserving the country's tremendous biodiversity.
In short, the objective of Ben's research and his work with MAHERY is to move us towards a time when hotspots of biodiversity such as those in Madagascar are no longer also hotspots of destitution and disease - to a time when the richness of the plant and animal life surrounding communities is not a stark contrast to their poverty.
When not studying or working, Ben enjoys eating dumplings with friends, improving his Malagasy, and following in his parents' globe-trotting footsteps.