By Chelsea Carman
When I applied to APHL’s Infectious Diseases Laboratory Fellowship in 2017, I had no idea I’d find myself spending three weeks in Nantes, France, with a leading expert in norovirus detection in oysters. While I love to travel, and France had been on my list of places to explore, I never anticipated that I would have this opportunity during my fellowship or that the opportunity would be made possible through the network of researchers connected through it.
I began my year-long fellowship at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health State Laboratory last summer. Less than a year before, the state faced a norovirus outbreak linked to consumption of raw oysters from Wellfleet, MA. Oysters are filter feeders, so whatever is in their surrounding environment will filter through their body and possibly bioaccumulate, (i.e., accumulate in the oyster rather than being excreted). When people eat the oysters raw, they can be exposed to a potentially infectious dose of the virus.
The state public health lab did not have a protocol to test oysters for norovirus, so I was tasked with this project. I was invited to visit the Shellfish Purification Plant in Newburyport, MA, which is the oldest depuration facility in the world and the largest in the US. I thought this hour and a half trip to the tip of Plum Island on the north shore of Massachusetts would be the furthest I would travel during this fellowship, and was happy to enjoy this fascinating field trip.
As part of my research, I began contacting experts in similar fields. Upon connecting with an international expert in norovirus detection in oysters, I was invited to visit and train at IFREMER, a French research and national reference lab. I was thrilled to accept!
A few months later I was in Nantes, France, a beautiful and green city on the Loire River, approximately 30 miles inland from the western Atlantic coast. There I spent three weeks learning the ISO method for detection of norovirus in oysters along with another visiting researcher from Morocco. I also learned about other research projects at the lab, and its responsibilities as a national reference lab.
On my second day there, the public transportation workers went on strike, so I joined some of the lab scientists and walked to work through the morning mist on a forest trail. I happened to mention that it was my birthday that day, and soon one of the students had organized a group dinner to celebrate. I gained a strong sense of inclusiveness from the group and had a truly memorable experience. It was wonderful to be able to ask as many questions as I wanted about their work (sometimes with the aid of Google translate because my French was quite limited), which was enormously helpful for my own project.
From my time training in the IFREMER lab, I learned the nuances of dissecting out the digestive tissue of an oyster, as well as two different homogenization and ribonucleic acid (RNA) extraction techniques. It was an opportunity to work with people that routinely work with both oysters and norovirus. While I could have read and interpreted the protocols from Massachusetts, it was extremely helpful to observe the intricate steps and ask the experts questions to fully understand the protocol. I’m now back in Massachusetts and have implemented much of what I learned into my project.
Once I returned and shared my experience with friends and family, they had one question for me: Do I still eat oysters? I did eat oysters but then I started finding live pea crabs inside them. Pea crabs are a parasite in the oyster and I felt they represented a large physical manifestation of all the other potential parasites, bacteria or viruses that can reside in oysters. That was enough to make me avoid them, at least for a while. I might begin eating them again after I complete this project; I’m still young and have a relatively good immune system to protect me from whatever might be lurking in an oyster!