The prevalence of Zika virus has many health officials concerned about the athletes and audiences who will be attending the 2016 Rio Olympics. Buchanan High graduate Adam Nitido hopes that his work sequencing DNA could lead to a better understanding of viruses like Zika.
“That’s one of the challenges with Zika right now, is figuring out who has it,” said Nitido, 24, a Fresno native and Fulbright scholar.
Nitido has spent the past year researching viruses as a lab technician at the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. His team studied Zika diagnostics briefly, he said, but his focus is broader than that.
“I’m … very much interested in understanding how these viruses emerge, and where these viruses come from, and also trying to figure out how to be ready for the next one,” he said.
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In 2014, Nitido was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study viruses like severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in China. This fall, he’s preparing to get his doctorate in virology at Harvard.
Nitido has been working in science since high school. Before he graduated from Buchanan, he had already completed two internships at Fresno State and UCSF Fresno. At Fresno State, he studied biology under associate professor Jason Bush. Nitido thought he was going to go into medicine, a common choice for biology majors, but realized he wasn’t suited to be a medical practitioner.
Nitido said he’s more interested in “the scientific aspects of medicine,” preferring to do research and spend time in a lab.
Bush said Nitido was “always looking to excel.” While he was hesitant to tutor Nitido when he was still in high school, his work ethic won Bush over.
“I was struck by Adam’s passion for science and the way he carried himself,” Bush said. Nitido worked alongside undergraduate and graduate students on an ovarian cancer project, which was presented at several conferences, Bush said.
Adam Nitido was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study coronaviruses in China.
After graduating from high school in 2010, Nitido went to UC Berkeley to study molecular and cell biology.
He wanted to broaden his horizons and began taking Chinese language and history courses. In the summer of 2012, he studied abroad in Shanghai with other UC Berkeley students.
“We did a lot of cultural experiences, went on a lot of tours,” Nitido said. “We learned about the history of the city.”
That first trip made two things clear for Nitido: He still wanted to study science, and he wanted to go back to China.
He applied to the Fulbright program with a proposal to study bat coronaviruses in China after graduating from Berkeley.
Coronaviruses infect animals but have the capability to affect humans as well, Nitido said. Many can be found in bats, he said. He used SARS, a coronavirus predominantly found in China, to better understand how infections jump from animals to humans.
“So many of the diseases we have originated from animals,” Nitido said, listing HIV, influenza, and swine flu as examples.
By studying DNA sequences in bats, scientists can compare and contrast new viruses with previously known viruses like SARS, Nitido said. Creating that database makes it easier for scientists to be prepared when a new virus shows up.
“What’s more important than responding to an outbreak is being prepared for the next one,” Nitido said.
I’m … very much interested in understanding how these viruses emerge, and where these viruses come from, and also trying to figure out how to be ready for the next one.
While sequencing DNA is no easy feat, Nitido said a big struggle for him was learning and retaining the Chinese language.
“You study it, but if you don’t use it you lose it,” he said.
That’s how he met his girlfriend, Xuemei Cao, a graduate student studying sociology. The two met at Berkeley before he left for China with the Fulbright program. Cao had come to Berkeley in 2013 from a city in southern China.
The two became language partners: Cao helped Nitido practice Chinese, and he helped her practice English.
“We met every Monday and tried to practice. I learned more about American culture, and he told me about his interest in China,” Cao said.
The first time she talked to Nitido, Cao thought he was a girl, based on his Chinese name he signed on his first email to her. Nitido’s Chinese professor translated his name to “Ni Yade” for the purpose of the class.
The character “Ya” means elegant, Cao said. “ ‘Elegant’ sounds a little bit feminine.”
So they changed that part of Nitido’s Chinese name to “Yude,” after a famous Chinese emperor.
The two have dated for almost three years, Cao said. They were both in China at the time of Nitido’s scholarship; Nitido was working on research in Wuhan, and Cao was working at the UN Women office in Beijing.
Last year, Cao began pursuing a doctorate at State University of New York, while Nitido continued doing lab work at Columbia. They visited often on the weekends, Nitido said.
This summer, Nitido and Cao are taking turns visiting family in China and Fresno before heading back to New York to pursue doctorates.
Nitido is preparing to attend Harvard to get his doctorate in virology this fall. He hasn’t officially picked a lab or research topic, but he does intend to study virus evolution.
Krysta Scripter: @krysta_scripter