Meet our researchers: Dr. Viveka Vadyvaloo

Viveka holding a jar of fleas.

Dr. Viveka Vadyvaloo hopes her research in the Paul G. Allen School for Global Health will lead to unraveling how fleas transmit the bacterial agent of the bubonic plague, which still occurs throughout the world, including in the western areas of the United States. Dr. Vadyvaloo has been at WSU since 2010 and is currently an associate professor and associate director of the Allen School. She obtained a PhD in Biochemistry in 2003 from Stellenbosch University in South Africa before postdoctoral training stints at University of California in Los Angeles and the Rocky Mountain Laboratories/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Montana.

She recently took some time to discuss her work at WSU.

What are your current research interests and what attracted you to that area?

Uncovering how the bacterial agent of the bubonic plague is transmitted by fleas is my primary research focus. My initial training was in bacteriology where I often conducted research on bacterial pathogens in model artificial culture systems. Fortuitously, I was offered an opportunity to do research with the plague bacterium in fleas during my postdoctoral training at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories. At first, I was merely excited by the prospect of doing research on a historic disease that profoundly impacted human health and civilization. However, I quickly became aware of how little we knew about the biological processes that underly transmission of plague bacteria from fleas – an interaction that is critical for spread of such a deadly disease. This inspired my enthusiastic drive into my current research focus. In plain, I am continually “plagued” by the many unanswered research questions surrounding the plague bacterium-flea interaction, and the challenges of working with this investigative system.

What do you ultimately hope to accomplish with your research?

My research goal is to build a foundational understanding of the fundamental biological processes that underly how the plague bacterium is transmitted by fleas. Ultimately, my hope is my research will inform the design of applied approaches to combat plague outbreaks.

When your career is over, what do you want to be remembered for?

As a plague researcher, I hope to develop innovative genetic and biochemical tools to interrogate the interaction between bacteria and fleas that will enable rapid advances in the field for the future generations of researchers. As a researcher in an academic environment, I’d like to be remembered for being a good colleague, good mentor, and contributor to the overall growth, sustainability, and integrity of programs which I am a part of.

What advice would you give to younger people considering a career in science?

One must be passionate about their science to self-inspire creativity and enable success. Science is an iterative process that requires a whole lot of engagement, patience, and thoughtfulness. Scientific research endeavors will challenge and frustrate you 95% of the time. But, when you prove your hypothesis or make a brand new discovery that deepens our understanding of a biological process, it is truly satisfying.

Why did you choose to come to WSU?

I was drawn to the Allen School at WSU because of its novel mission and programs in advancing global health research, education, and disease control, with a concerted effort in poor countries. Having grown up in Africa and experienced firsthand the burden of infectious diseases on the health and socio-economic wellbeing of people there, it just made sense to me to develop my academic research career as a part of something with a larger purpose to improve human health.