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Bridging Cultures and Battling Diseases: A Scholar's Thai Odyssey

Returning from a Latter-day Saint mission in Thailand, Curtis Hoffmann (MMBIO ’23) immediately wanted to return to the country and conduct research. Thailand was one of the first countries to have a positive COVID case, and he witnessed firsthand how the virus ravaged the country. Hoffman wanted to become a part of the solution, and thanks to inspiring learning funds, he was given the opportunity to work with Thai healthcare professionals last summer.

Hoffmann’s interest in pathology research started far earlier than his mission. After reading The Hot Zone by Richard Preston, fourteen-year-old Hoffmann became engrossed in infectious disease. The book discusses the Ebola outbreaks of 1976 and 1989. “The way [Preston] described that story, which is nonfiction, was just terrifying,” Hoffmann says. “They say those types of books can either inspire you or terrify you; for me, I chose the inspiration route.”

A Thai woman and American man pose in front of a blue sign that reads "One Health Center"
Photo by Curtis Hoffmann

When he was a student in BYU’s Department of Microbiology and Molecular Biology, Hoffmann studied virology. He delved into understanding outbreaks, symptoms, and treatments of viral infections and diseases. Since Thailand is often ground-zero for outbreaks due to its humid climate and growing population, Thai microbiologists are considered leading experts in their field.

Hoffmann’s missionary experience in Thailand opened doors of collaboration for him to connect seamlessly with the country’s professionals. “As you start speaking in the language, suddenly we understand each other; to them, it's like you took the time to understand who they are as a people, which means you understand their culture because you speak their language,” Hoffmann remarks. “Many researchers wanted to introduce me to their friends and their colleagues as a result.”

One such collaborator was Dr. Supaporn Wacharapluesadee, nicknamed the “bat lady" of Thailand for her efforts in monitoring the Nipah virus, a bat-borne pathogen with a high mortality rate. She mentored Hoffmann and encouraged him to reach out to more professors in-country. She also urged Hoffmann to consider graduate work hunting viruses by examining animals for diseases that might show up in humans. Hoffmann found Wacharapluesadee’s support invaluable as he continues higher education pursuits. “Connecting with her has led to every experience since,” he reflects.

A pale man and Thai researchers sit in a room for a training
Photo by Curtis Hoffmann

Working with the Thai Ministry of Public Health, the Department of Disease Control, and the Office of International Cooperation, Hoffmann got to sample different career paths that feed into infectious disease research and surveillance. He learned from the foremost experts in Thailand about responding to pandemics on a national level.

Hoffmann was also able to participate in a collaborative project with Thailand and the United States through wastewater treatment training conducted by the Department of Disease Control. The goal was to train local health volunteers and US leaders on combating melioidosis, a disease similar to pneumonia and tuberculosis. This disease originated in Southeast Asia, making Thai medical professionals well versed in mitigation methods. The US sought cooperation because traces of melioidosis have been found in the southern United States. The effort marked a unified effort between both governments to prevent the emerging disease’s dissemination.

A woman in a lab suit tests samples
Curtis Hoffmann submitted photos of his experience to the Life Science Experiential Learning Photo Contest. His photo of a scientist testing samples at the Thai Red Cross Emerging Infectious Diseases Clinical Center at King Chulalongkorn Memorial Hospital won third place.
Photo by Curtis Hoffmann

Hoffmann met a plethora of other researchers during his semester abroad. A parasitologist and rodent expert, Dr. Kittipong Chaisiri, explained rodent-borne diseases to Hoffmann. He also met Wiparat “May” Khunnawutmanotha, who tests mpox samples, and Nattakarn “Nim” Thippamom, who single-handedly tested all cases of avian flu during the early 2000s outbreak in Thailand. His Thai language skills also came in handy when he helped translate epidemiological reports from Thai to English for an upcoming publication

The summer research trip cemented Hoffmann’s desire to go to graduate school. He hopes to collect and study viral samples and emerging viruses. Because of his networking efforts, he plans to work on a future surveillance project in Thailand that will detect more novel viruses before they can wreak havoc on the public. The return visit will also feature a project to aid low- and middle-income countries in using genomic data, a skill that could enhance virus-hunting attempts.

A pale man in a blue shirt stands in front of the Emerging Infectious Diseases Clinic carrying a pamphlet that reads "How to prevent the next pandemic"
Photo by Curtis Hoffmann

Memorably, Hoffmann visited the border of Thailand and Myanmar with a friend named Jade (name changed to protect anonymity), a member of the Mon people. The border between the two countries is tense due to the Myanmar Spring Revolution, and Americans are currently not allowed to cross. The Mon straddle the perimeter between the two countries and struggle to find acceptance in either. Jade works in her community to create iron rods that are used in the reconstruction of Buddhist temples and homes damaged by the conflict. Reconnecting with this friend inspired Hoffmann to pen a book on her story

The Thailand Bangkok Temple open house occurred while Hoffmann was in the country. Seeing the Latter-day Saints in Thailand receive a House of the Lord caused Hoffmann to reflect with nostalgia on the faith he witnessed as a missionary in the country.

The life-changing experience would have been impossible without the inspiring learning funds provided by donors and the university. Hoffmann wants more students to be aware of the plentiful funding resources available to them. He feels that international travel is essential to broadening undergraduate education.

A pale man with three Thai researchers all wear blue and hard hats in front of a wastewater treatment plant.
Photo by Curtis Hoffmann

Hoffmann currently works at the Sabeti lab at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in the interim, where he is pioneering other kinds of epidemiological research. After Harvard, he hopes to continue working abroad to improve funding efforts for lower-income countries’ disease response systems. Hoffmann remains grateful for the time he spent in Thailand as a BYU student and the doors it opened for research, education, service, and reconnecting with his mission.

To find funding opportunities to help students go abroad, visit this website.