It is emblematic of our island’s inability to secure the fruits of its human resource harvest that I only knew of Dr. Swinburne Augustine this year– even though we attended high school around the same time in Dominica. I wish to thank the management and staff of Q95, and the “Global Voices on Q” program initiated and moderated by Sheridan Gregoire for presenting such an illustrious son of the soil on a March 2020 COVID-19 panel discussion aimed at educating our population about nascent COVID-19 global pandemic caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).
Swinburne Augustine was born in Delices, Dominica in 1962, the son of Victor Augustine and Paulina Eloi. His father, Victor, became a Certified Management Accountant with the Canadian Government in Toronto after graduating from the Saint Mary’s Academy (SMA) and University in Toronto. Paulina was a domestic worker and later a restaurant attendant in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. Swinburne attended the Delices Primary School which was next to his home. His grandfather owned the only mill in the village to make farine from cassava and toloma from the arrowroot plant. Farine and toloma were food staples in our diet in those days. In his words:
We lived so close to the school; we could not skip school by faking sickness. In those days, police or truancy officers (my grandfather was a truancy officer) would apprehend you and take you to school for a whipping if you were found hanging around, wasting time being truant during school time. I was raised by my grandparents, Aaron and Severine Augustine. My grandparents were farmers, who also ran their own mill processing cassava and arrowroot. My grandfather’s only government-paid job was as a truancy officer for the district to seek out truants and haul them to school. I am not too sure if Dominica has that strict system against truancy today.
Dr. Augustine is married to Twanita Augustine, a Human Resources Specialist at the EPA. He has four children: Dr. Tamara Augustine, an Emergency Medicine Physician at Mercy Hospital Systems in Cincinnati; Sara Lynn Augustine, a psychologist in Louisville, Kentucky; Jaylin Augustine, college student in Jackson, Mississippi; and Tristan Augustine who is a middle school student in North Carolina. He has three brothers: Sgt. Major Germaine Liburd, an instructor at the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy in El Paso Texas; Sergeant First Class, Donovan Fabien, formerly of the U.S. Army Garrison in South Korea; and Jeff Augustine of Toronto, Canada. Three sisters: Ingrid Avis Augustine, a Clinical Psychologist in Lynchburg, Virginia; Shirley Joseph nee Augustine of Atlanta, Georgia; and Karen Augustine, a writer, artist and communications specialist in Toronto, Canada.
Dr. Augustine, a 1979 graduate of the Saint Mary’s Academy, recalls having been inspired by illustrious principals such as then Father (now Cardinal) Kelvin Felix and Brother Egbert Germain. In the words of Augustine:
I credit my SMA and Delices Primary School education for my success in academia and professional life. Many of my teachers were recent high school graduates themselves with only Cambridge University General Certificate of Education (GCEs) “A” Levels. Yet, they were bright and taught me to think critically. They taught us to write long essays, no multiple choice. I only became familiar with the multiple-choice exam method once I came to the US. When I saw the multiple-choice questions on my US Army Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) exam, I recalled telling the exam proctor, “Hey Sergeant, you gave me all the answers to the test.” At first, he laughed at me when I explained that I was looking at the answers. He would be shocked two hours later when I handed in my completed exam. The ASVAB typically lasts all day. The proctor, a Staff Sergeant, immediately graded my exam and I had completely aced it, 100% in every section. He looked at me quizzically, so I repeated to him that he had given me the answers to the test. Dominicans of my era had good teachers who really wanted you to learn; they were not teaching you only to pass an exam but to build a strong intellectual foundation.
In 1979, Swinburne held his first job at the Royal Bank of Canada. From the Royal Bank, he joined the Commonwealth of Dominica Police Force and served in the anti-insurgency Special Service Unit (SSU). In his words:
The most important highlight of my time in the SSU was playing a role in defeating the December 18, 1981 attempted coup d’état to overthrow the Dominica Freedom Party led government of Mary Eugenia Charles by members of the disbanded Dominica Defence Force led by Major Frederick Newton and allied to coup plotters Patrick John, Captain Malcolm Reid and members of the U.S. Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a violent, racist organization. In those days SSU members like myself could carry our submachine guns (SMG) home; it was a folding SMG of a kind I could conceal under my shirt. On the night of the attack on police headquarters by the disbanded Dominica Defence Force members I was at home. Once we heard the alert, I grabbed my SMG and we called around and gathered SSU members next to the Windsor Park. From the Windsor Park, we launched our counter-offensive to retake headquarters under the command of SSU officers Inspector Mathias Lestrade and Station Sergeant Nicholas George. On October 25, 1983, as an SSU member, we joined the U.S. and allied intervention in Grenada, Operation Urgent Fury, as part of the newly formed Regional Security Force (RSF) to restore order and democracy after the murder of its Prime Minister Maurice Bishop and other leaders in the October 19, 1983 massacres by that island’s army at Fort Rupert.
In late1983, Swinburne joined the ranks of the Dominica Broadcasting Service (DBS), the Island’s premier Radio Station as a News Reporter/Announcer with the likes of distinguished journalists like Tim Durand (Program Director), Shermaine Green Brown (News Director), Steinberg Henry, Rudy Joseph, Dr. John Loblack, Felix Henderson, Ted Dailey and Johnson John Rose. In addition to reporting the news, he developed and hosted a Country Music show on Tuesday nights.
Swinburne migrated to the United States Virgin Islands in mid-1986. He worked with a gospel radio station WGOD as a News Reporter/Announcer under the leadership of former Dominica calypsonian Vaughn “King Shaky” James. During that time, he studied music at the University of the Virgin Islands. He joined the US Army in September 1988 and entered the 36th Medical Company/44th Medical Brigade at Fort Bragg, North Carolina after completing Basic Training in El Paso, Texas, Advanced Initial Training as a combat Medic at Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas, and Airborne (Parachute) School at Fort Benning, Georgia. His unit trained with and provided medical support to the 82nd Airborne Division and other combat units. He served in Operation Just Cause, which removed and arrested Panamanian dictator, General Manuel Noriega. During that operation, Augustine helped set up the combat field hospital at Howard Air Force Base in the Panama Canal Zone. He recalls caring for both US and Panamanian troop casualties. Thereafter, Augustine served in the first Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm (1st Gulf War) in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq as a combat medic and received the US Army Commendation Medal, two Achievement Medals and the Southwest Asia Medal with two stars. During that war Sgt. Augustine helped set-up filed hospitals, led outpost troop clinics and the nuclear-biological-chemical warfare tents in the desert to treat troops in the belief that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein would use such weapons.
In 1993, Augustine graduated with a diploma in Practical Nursing (honors) from the US Military Academy of Health Sciences at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. Later, Augustine completed his Associate’s Degree in Applied Science/General Studies (honors) at the Georgia Military College. Between 1997-1999, Augustine completed his Bachelor of Science Degree in Biology and Chemistry (honors) at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, Tennessee. Three months later, Augustine started his Doctor of Philosophy Degree (PhD) program in Biomedical Sciences and Immunology at Meharry Medical College, one of the oldest historically black Medical Schools in the United States. In 2006, Augustine graduated from Meharry at the top of his class with a PhD in Biomedical Sciences and Immunology. His dissertation research at Meharry discovered a potential vaccine candidate for Trypanosoma cruzi, the causative agent of Chagas’ disease which is highly prevalent and deadly in South and Central America and for which there is no cure. Immediately afterward, he did a postdoctoral fellowship on molecular neurology at University of Central Florida, in his words:
We had a focus on hydrocephalus – trying to find out the molecular cause of kids with that “big-head” disease. I set up the laboratory and experimental design for that research. I like laboratory science as one can be creative, innovative and novel. I simply don’t like repeating what others have done. Lab science, though risky, allows one to engage in cutting-edge, groundbreaking work. We discovered a defect in the molecular structure that prevented cerebral spinal fluid from draining out, thus the head got bigger and bigger.
Augustine started at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a Research Microbiologist/Immunologist. His first project was to break the oocysts of Toxoplasma gondii. In the words of Augustine:
The oocysts of Toxoplasma gondii grow in felines and if inhaled or ingested (eating contaminated food/meats or drinking contaminated water) by humans it moves to the brain and sits there. Mothers can pass that parasite to the fetus who can become paralyzed or killed. It can sit in the human brain and be inactive. However, if you are immunocompromised then it can have serious health consequences. paralyze a human or kill them; the disease is called Toxoplasmosis. It is a common parasite in felines. I developed both chemical and physical methods to inactivate/destroy that parasite on surfaces using chemicals and ultra-violet light.
As of October 2020, Dr. Augustine is a Principal Investigator in the U.S. EPA Center for Public Health and Environmental Assessment (CPHEA) Biomarker Discovery Lab where he has amassed an impressive collection of peer-reviewed scientific research articles, book chapter and national/international conference oral presentations. He is a member of two of the foremost international scientific organizations: the American Association of Immunologists (AAI) and the American Society for Microbiology (ASM). He serves on the Editorial and Review Boards of some of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals and is an ad hoc reviewer for many more. In simple terms, he researches immune system responses (antibodies, cytokines, chemokines etc.) to environmental pathogen exposures and other biomarkers that can affect public health. As stated by Augustine:
We study these biomarkers of infection to determine which organisms are causing illness, the sources of these exposures and devise ways to arrest or mitigate their negative impact on public health. The data obtained from these studies are used by federal, state and tribal public health officials and policymakers to protect their populations. It is in that regard we have applied the antibody assay that I developed for hepatitis A virus, noroviruses, Helicobacter pylori, Campylobacter jejuni, Toxoplasma gondii, rotavirus A and more than 20 other pathogens to COVID-19. Our preliminary data shows that our test is 100% sensitive and 96-98% specific for identifying antibodies in saliva against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. We are currently recruiting study participants who have been diagnosed as being positive for COVID-19. Once the assay is completed and validated, it will be given to the general public for use to determine the true prevalence or penetration of the virus in our populations. The link to the COVID-19 study is: https://epastudies.org/public/epastudies/SelectedStudies.aspx#COVID
In addition to COVID-19 studies, I collaborate with universities and medical schools on several projects. One collaboration with the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver has identified viruses that may have a role to play in the development of Type 1 Diabetes in children using the saliva assay I developed. I am also developing a saliva assay for Legionella pneumophila which recently caused several deaths and illnesses in Flint, Michigan and other outbreaks across the U.S.
In August 2020, Dr. Augustine received an award from the EPA for his work on the team perfecting that COVID-19 test. The award justification from EPA dedicated to Dr. Augustine reads:
Swinburne Augustine has been a key contributor to a team that conceived and enacted a unique high impact effort during COVID-19 pandemic. Using expertise developed by efforts to identify immune responses to viruses and pathogens in drinking and recreation waters, the team of EPA researchers has been working with researchers at CDC to develop a simple, easy, low cost, non-invasive antibody test using saliva samples. Antibody testing helps identify people who have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2, may not have ever developed symptoms, and who have subsequently developed an immune response. Such an antibody test could help public health officials determine the rate of infection across the country.
According to Dr. Augustine:
Today, the United States and the world lack effective and accurate ways to evaluate the penetration level of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the population. The quick saliva assay we have crafted at EPA is 100% sensitive and 96-98% specific. The sensitivity of the test reflects the probability that the screening test will be positive among those who are diseased. In contrast, the specificity of the test reflects the probability that the screening test will be negative among those who, in fact, do not have the disease, which means that out of 100% people diagnosed as COVID-19 positive we will detect 100% of those persons as positive with that test. Therefore, we are making good progress in the battle against COVID-19 and we thank God for the wisdom and teamwork so critical to success. In that regard, I am forever thankful to my family, my teachers, friends and mentors in Dominica and the United States who trained me to serve the best medical science needs of humanity.
In the interview for this article Augustine said:
When we come to the United States, we don’t come to waste time. We must be conscious of the opportunities before us and work hard to be a credit to our family, our country of origin and communities where we live. In other words, we must be true ambassadors of Dominica and do so in the best and most honorable way possible. That way we can accrue respect for ourselves and our people while elevating our reputation as a serious, intelligent, and competent people in this world. My hope is that this story inspires our Dominican youth to continue to prepare for the future because we never know when the opportunity will present itself to contribute to our island and the global family. Never forget that we must represent the best!
May this story on the contributions to universal scientific progress by Dr. Swinburne Augustine encourage a more dynamic teaming and networking for development among our people at home and abroad. Well done, Dr. Augustine! You make us proud!
Gabriel J, Christian, Esq