By Dixie-Ann Belle
As Dr Arlene Williams-Persad stood with the nine other awardees at the recent 13th Latin American and Caribbean Congress of Immunology – ALACI 22 in Varadero, Cuba in June 2022, she felt that she was experiencing one of the moments that validated her career and her faith. Being a recipient of the ‘Distinguished Woman in Immunology’ award, for her research on the autoimmune disorder, chronic granulomatous disease (CGD) on an international level, she says, “it was very encouraging.”
Dr Williams-Persad’s scientific career spread a wide net early in her life. She was always interested in the natural world and began by studying biochemistry at The University of the West Indies (UWI).
Her work as a lab technician led her to study pharmacology. She graduated with her PhD in pharmacology in 2013. Eventually she branched off into immunology.
“Immunology is the study of the defense mechanisms that make up the body,” she said. “It investigates how the body fights infection by rejecting foreign viruses and bacteria.”
She describes it as a transdisciplinary field; scientists often come to it from other disciplines as she did.
Her involvement in this area pointed her to accept the position as Treasurer of The West Indian Immunology Society (WIIS). It was WIIS president Dr Angel Justiz Valiant who first introduced her to the potential of researching CGD.
“CGD is a rare inherited disorder relating to a defect in one of the defense proteins located in our blood cells,” Williams-Persad explains. CGD patients are highly susceptible to mild infections that may lead to severe outcomes.
“An understanding of this disorder can help scientists unlock the potentials for developing treatments not only to improve the quality of life of a CGD patient but to also explore treatments against other disease pathologies.” She and her colleagues hope to publish a paper of the work completed. Williams-Persad’s membership in WIIS and her presentation on CGD in a recent seminar made her eligible to be invited to the congress in Cuba. She presented on the treatment and management of the illness.
Besides the opportunity to share her research, Dr Williams-Persad appreciated the chance to meet with other experts from around the world. She was drawn to the congress as a chance for her to attend a professional event outside of the popularly advertised institutions from the United States or Europe and was pleasantly surprised to meet delegates also present from these institutions. She arrived to find herself the only representative from the West Indies. She hopes other experts from the region will attend the next one in two years.
“This is an opportunity to collaborate with a new group of like-minded scientists and learn or contribute our knowledge with a different group of researchers,” she notes. She explains how experiences like this help local researchers come out of their “bubble”.
This nurtures the goals that have motivated Williams-Persad throughout her career — not only is she dedicated to scientific discovery but to service to humanity. “I would love to leave an impact on science and represent my country doing it,” she says. “Everything is about moving forward in life, advancing your quality of life and making other people’s lives better.”
Her desire to help others shine out in her work on CGD and her interest in potential new drugs to treat inflammatory diseases. In fact, she has her own relative struggles with painful arthritis, so Williams-Persad is personally acquainted with the value of finding more effective agents which can reverse or prevent the inflammation instead of simply treating the pain.
As a Catholic, she is motivated by the teachings she learned as a child in the St Joseph RC Church, St Joseph where she is still a parishioner. She feels that her faith is interwoven in her work.
“I can’t go without talking to God before I do a major event,” she declares. She adds, “He has blessed me with everything that I have.”
Dr Williams-Persad feels her humble, balanced, and loving upbringing helped develop the skills which have contributed to her achieving many of her life goals. She feels that an emphasis on community and giving back could help young people to depend less on instant gratification and instead focus on more lasting choices that will bring positivity and productivity to their lives.
She hopes that sharing this experience will also pave the way for others to pursue their ambitions like she did. She emphasises how science can provide humanitarian gains and improve the quality of life in our communities.
During her trip to Cuba, she saw no homeless people and felt that similar attitudes should be cultivated in Trinidad and Tobago. “We want to bring back community life, family life, to encourage and building faith in the Catholic Church,” she declares.
Dr Williams-Persad hopes that more scientists will find their passion in research like she did. A good place to start could be reaching out to The West Indian Immunology Society on their website https://westindianimmunolo.wixsite.com/my-site-1.
Dixie-Ann Belle is a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader. She writes about her work, advice for writers and creative people on her blog https://belleworks.wordpress.com/