The complexity of insight and perspective I gained at Barnard led me to challenge my most fundamental beliefs and the space I occupy in the world.

Alexandra Boubour

Alexandra Boubour ’19 has been busy since graduating from Barnard two years ago with a degree in neuroscience and behavior. Starting in the fall of 2019, Boubour used a Fulbright award in Malawi to study the impacts of pediatric febrile comas caused by illnesses such as malaria. In 2020, Boubour began a master’s at the University of Oxford in global health science and epidemiology.

At Barnard, Boubour was the co-president of GlobeMed at Columbia University, a student group that aims to improve the health of people living in poverty worldwide. The group partners with Gulu Women’s Economic Development and Globalization (GWEDG) to support the health of women in Gulu, Uganda. Boubour also held research assistantships at the NYU Langone Division of Headache — headed by Mia Minen ’03 — and the Zuker Lab, at Columbia’s Irving Medical Center. And in 2016 she co-founded Headache and Arts, a nonprofit organization that teaches teens about migraines and concussions using visual arts. 

“During my four years as a neuroscience student, I had a supportive community of peers, professors, and friends who welcomed and encouraged inquiry, which helped me feel more comfortable with vulnerability, more confident to err, and free to take academic risks,” said Boubour of her time as a Barnard student.

Most recently, Boubour published a study on the clinical significance of the FilmArray Meningitis/Encephalitis (ME) panel and conducted research into whether and how COVID-19 impacts the brain. Boubour discusses her work, and how it was impacted by Barnard, in the Q&A below.

What led you to pursue a Fulbright in Malawi, and how was the experience?

In the foreground, a fern-like frond stands out against a background of a lake awash with yellow and pink light at sunset in Malawi

I began remotely collaborating with a team of Malawi-based researchers and healthcare workers in 2016, while working as a research assistant at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. We conducted — and later published — an epidemiological study on perceived neurorehabilitation challenges for Malawian pediatric cerebral malaria survivors. Subsequently, we developed an informational booklet to educate families of cerebral malaria patients about the illness and its [aftereffects]. This collaboration was founded on an ethos of cross-cultural respect, solidarity, and partnership to sustainably enhance cerebral malaria outcomes. 

When the opportunity arose to pursue a Fulbright scholarship, I was supported by mentors and Malawian colleagues, whom I was ecstatic to finally meet in person. My research explored the socioeconomic impact and neurocognitive outcomes of acute, nontraumatic pediatric febrile coma — a leading cause of morbidity and mortality in Malawi — arising from illnesses such as cerebral malaria, meningitis, and encephalitis. 

While navigating different linguistic and cultural circumstances, I learned how to supplement the scientific method with a community-based model of inquiry. Reevaluating my role in global health, I recognized the impossibility of divorcing science from its cultural, political, and historical contexts. I had long conversations with colleagues and friends about deconstructing hierarchical power dynamics between academia and the communities with which we work. Some of my fondest memories were formed after hours — by attending music festivals and poetry nights, sharing meals, hiking and bouldering, camping in national parks and wildlife reserves, and singing in the city choir. Although my time in Malawi was cut short due to the pandemic, I look forward to returning and reuniting with colleagues and friends. 

What is your master’s thesis topic?

I focus on bacterial genomics in the context of diagnostics for and vaccination against meningitis. Specifically, I seek to characterize the capsular locus of Haemophilus influenzae, a leading bacterial cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide. The capsular locus — a position of H. influenzae DNA sequence that encodes the protective polysaccharide capsule — is the principal target of current H. influenzae vaccines. 

Why is it important to study this topic?

In recent years, H. influenzae invasive disease — when the pathogen “invades” otherwise sterile sites of the body, such as the blood and cerebrospinal fluid — has resurged. When coupled with the potential for further diversification of the H. influenzae genome, which may hinder current diagnostic ability and vaccine efficacy, and increasing antimicrobial resistance, we are presented with a pressing global health issue. Enhancing diagnostics for and vaccine effectiveness against H. influenzae through increased knowledge of its genome will support World Health Organization goals to reduce cases of and deaths from vaccine-preventable bacterial disease. 

How did you get involved in researching how COVID-19 impacts the brain?

When I returned to the U.S. from Malawi in March 2020, I was transported from a setting with zero confirmed cases to my hometown of New York City, the epicenter of the global pandemic. Amidst a whirlwind of confusion, misinformation, and uncertainty, I was eager to support COVID-19 research at home and hoped to help advance our understanding of the virus. I was invited to join a COVID-19 neuropathology study at the Irving Medical Center. I conducted an extensive literature review on coronavirus neuropathology and COVID-19 neurology and contributed to writing, editing, and revising the manuscript. In addition, I assisted with the generation of detailed tables to visualize clinical data. 

How did Barnard influence you as a scientist and researcher?

Alexandra Boubour wears a Columbia graduation gown in front of a flowering yellow tree

Barnard provided me with a global community of highly motivated individuals who continuously inspire me — some of whom remain close friends. Alongside personal and professional growth, Barnard equipped me with foundational scientific knowledge and research skills that have proven helpful while designing and conducting research studies as a Fulbright scholar and graduate student at Oxford. I quickly learned how to anticipate challenges to rapidly and creatively problem-solve while persisting in complex, unfamiliar situations — critical skills in scientific research. Most importantly, my Barnard peers helped me understand the importance of resting, absorbing, and connecting — that less can often be more to strike a healthy balance. The complexity of insight and perspective I gained at Barnard led me to challenge my most fundamental beliefs and the space I occupy in the world. I could not be more grateful for the opportunity to study within such a thoughtful and passionate community. 

What’s next for you?

In the short term, I will be working in the Departments of Population Health and Zoology at Oxford to publish my thesis and explore my interest in using pathogen genomics to prevent future epidemics and pandemics. Afterwards, I hope to focus my career on enhancing diagnostics for managing and treating zoonoses and neuroinfectious diseases, [and on work that prioritizes] actualizing health as a human right. In the meantime, you’ll find me making music, practicing martial arts, and learning to roller skate.

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