Have any of you ever played Tick Rodeo? No, not a video game, it’s when you have twenty ticks in one tube and are trying to get them to another tube even though they don’t want to get out of the first tube but once they are out of the first tube they don’t want to get into the second one at all and keep on crawling out so you are desperately trying not to lose any of them or accidentally fling one on yourself.
I have, and it is actually quite fun. For ten weeks, I studied Borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato, the causative agent of Lyme disease, at the University of South Bohemia in České Budéjovice, in the Institute of Parasitology at the Academy of Sciences. It’s a mouthful, I know. Ten of us arrived in late May, jet lagged and confused, each with a project to complete in ten weeks. Mine was to collect and evaluate Ixodes ricinus ticks to contribute to an ecological analysis of B. burgdorferi s.l. in the area, as well as try to isolate B. miyamotoi, an emerging spirochete pathogen also found in ticks.
Before I continue, let me state that I have absolutely no experience in this area. All my previous research involves soil and soil formation, so I was starting from point zero. I had never even run PCR before. So before I actually started my project, I had to learn how to do it. It started with trips into the forest around České Budéjovice, where I collected ticks in both the adult stage and nymph stage, and brought them back to the lab, where I cleaned them (the tick rodeo stage) and extracted their DNA. I would then run PCR on them followed by electrophoresis to test for B. burgdorferi s.l. and then another round of PCR to test for B. miyamotoi.
Over the ten weeks, I managed to test 67 ticks, eight of which were positive for B. burgdorferi s.l. Further sequencing determined that six of those samples contained B. afzelii, in the B. burgdorferi s.l. complex. This is unsurprising, as previous ecological analyses have found B. afzelii quite prevalent in the area. However, out of the 67 ticks, not one was positive for B. miyamotoi, so I never isolated a sample of that.
In addition to my research, I did a bit of exploration and cultural immersion as well. I knew no Czech going in, save for a few words like ahoj (hello), and prosim (please). I had a bit of a fiasco on my first shopping trip, meaning no harm but accidentally aggravating the cashier and customers in line. I almost cried out of happiness when I first found Nutella, and was extraordinarily proud when I took the bus on my own for the first time. The most interesting aspects of the culture, however, come from the Czech Republic being a former communist country. Unnecessary items were just that, unnecessary. Something both surprising and similar to the U.S. was the phenomena called ostalgia, a play on ost, meaning east, and nostalgia. People would reminisce about the good old days, except for these “good old days” were when the country was under communist rule, rather than the 50s and 60s bubblegum culture we in America look back on. Although communism itself is not necessarily missed, its simplicity is.
It was a fascinating experience, especially the weekends, which we reserved for travel. Prague, of course, was visited a few times, and we explored the castle, as well as the Old Town and the Jewish Quarter. České Krumlov, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was only twenty minutes away by bus, where we rafted down the Vltava, the first time rafting for many of us. Vienna was a short train ride away, and Linz an even shorter one. A few of us went up to the Alps in Austria, where we toddled around in the snow in July. Bratislava was visited as well, where we were lucky enough to be led around by an art student who spent a semester at the University of Arizona. Strangely enough, though, after our weekend trips, I would be thrilled to get back to Č. Budéjovice to sleep in “my own” bed. Very quickly, the city became my second home.
In ten weeks, I feel as if I grew as a person, both learning how to be independent and also how to ask for help if I needed it. I am so honored and incredibly grateful to have been a part of the UBRP Prozkoumat! program, and I give my thanks to the organizers of the program as well as my fellow Prozkoumat-ers for making this a wonderful experience, and the NIH MHIRT grant (5 T37 MD001427) for funding this program. Look for Tick Rodeo in the app store.