Skip to main content
Zack Bango smiling in front of a white background, wearing a CORE shirt

From Botswana to Los Angeles, OSU biochemistry alum now on the front lines of COVID-19

By Cari Longman

“My path has been kind of zig-zaggy,” admits Zack Bango. Since graduating from OSU with a degree in biochemistry & biophysics, Bango has been in the Peace Corps, worked in a malaria research laboratory in Botswana and is now working on the front lines of COVID-19 testing and treatment in Los Angeles County, California.

Not your typical student

His whirlwind adventure started before he stepped foot on OSU’s campus. During new student orientation, called START, the summer before he started college, Bango met Kari Van Zee, senior instructor and lead advisor for the biochemistry & biophysics department.

“Kari was the first person I ever met at OSU,” Bango recalls. “The moment I walked in the door at START, we started talking, and within ten minutes, she had introduced me to Dr. Michael Freitag’s lab technician, Lanelle Connolly. I was working in Dr. Freitag’s lab before I even started classes, which was amazing. That was exactly what I needed,” said Bango.

Bango admits that he was never the typical OSU student. He started attending Rogue Community College near his hometown in southern Oregon at 13. “I kind of circumnavigated high school because of that,” he said. He earned enough college credits that he was able to complete his undergraduate degree in just three years.

He chose to attend Oregon State specifically for the biochemistry & biophysics program and got experience in Frietag’s lab researching molecular biology. “At first I thought I wanted to go into epigenetics research,” he said, and “that’s what I got to do at OSU.”

He was able to contribute to some primary publications and presented his research at conferences. This experience improved his research and communications skills, and also taught him that epigenetics was not the field that most interested him. Instead, he decided to pursue a career studying infectious diseases, or diseases of poverty. He worked as a medical scribe for a doctor with the Corvallis Clinic who had previously worked in Africa; that doctor encouraged Bango to pursue this new interest.

Zack Bango presenting talking to school children in Botswana about malaria.

Bango presenting to school children in Botswana on malaria.

Giving the Peace Corps a try

With his growing interest in infectious disease work, Bango looked for opportunities internationally to gain more experience in the field. He settled on the Peace Corps. “The Peace Corps was just a logical way to get my toes wet,” said Bango.

After graduation, he spent one year as an HIV-AIDS healthcare educator in rural Botswana. “We were in a small outpost in a village of about 2,000 people that was 60 kilometers down dirt backroads. We did have electricity, even though it didn’t work very well. But that was nice – most Peace Corps volunteers don’t get that,” said Bango.

While he was there, Bango started to notice that malaria was a much more pressing issue for the community than HIV. “The community chieftain, who I became good friends with, wanted help with malaria,” not HIV, said Bango. Yet Peace Corps in Botswana does not do work in malaria.

At the same time, word of Bango’s lab and research experience got around. He received an offer to work with a University of Pennsylvania-University of Botswana partnership lab on a project specifically focused on malaria research.

“I connected with the head of the malaria lab, and he was looking for a molecular biologist to fill a void that existed in terms of some of the studies he was trying to do. He found out I was in-country and for about six months he kept saying, ‘Come work in my lab. We need your skills,’” Bango recalled.

Bango decided to terminate his service with the Peace Corps and move to Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, to begin work as a malaria researcher. “The Peace Corps ended up not being the best fit just because I was looking for something with a little more scientific rigor.”

Bango with his lab team

Bango (at back) with his malaria research team in Gaborone, Botswana.

Putting his degree to use

In his new job, Bango and his team assessed an emerging and more treatment-resistant form of malaria in Africa, called plasmodium vivax, to determine its prevalence and virulence.

His team also studied asymptomatic reservoirs – people who have the malaria parasite in their blood and can therefore pass it to others via mosquito bites – but show no symptoms. Through this work, Bango helped develop a novel platform for determining the number of malaria parasites a person has per unit of blood.

Bango realized his work in the lab would directly benefit the village in which he lived as a Peace Corps volunteer and many more just like it across the country. Equally significantly, his time in the village served to benefit his work in the lab.

He was able to translate “those experiences on the ground and the relationships I made with people to the lab,” helping him develop real-world solutions that helped inform “the entire government in regards to country-wide malaria initiatives,” he said. “That was a cool experience because the chieftains and the people at the bottom rung rarely get heard by the health specialists.”

A change in plans

As the world began to shut its borders due to the fast-spreading COVID-19 pandemic, Bango was told he would have to leave Botswana. “The airport was getting shut down, my health insurance was revoked, my visa was revoked… I got a call, and I had about 48 hours to get out.”

Before he left, though, his lab offered its services to the government of Botswana to help them prepare its pandemic response. Partnering with Harvard University, Bango and his team helped build the country’s coronavirus diagnostic platform. “We were gearing up in the lab to do diagnostics for coronavirus and fight on the front lines in Botswana. Then the entire laboratory got shut down. It’s kind of like having the rug pulled from underneath you,” he said.

He does not think all that work was for naught, though. Bango has checked in with Botswanan members of his research team and learned that they are actively engaged in coronavirus testing.

Bango giving the thumbs-up sign in full protective gear for COVID-19 testing

Bango left Botswana when the coronavirus pandemic spread worldwide and joined an organization doing COVID-19 testing in Los Angeles, CA.

Finding a role in the fight against COVID-19

Upon returning to the U.S. from Botswana, he returned to Applegate, his small hometown in southern Oregon, for a two-week quarantine. “Luckily, I had no symptoms, and I got to see my family, but there was definitely a big void,” he said.

He started looking for opportunities to get involved with coronavirus efforts in the U.S. “I had some experience, and if I didn’t get out and do something, I knew I would regret it,” said Bango. His partner, Lindsay, whom he met while in Botswana, had returned to her home in Los Angeles. They realized that Los Angeles was doing some innovative testing initiatives that other cities were not. “L.A. was one of the first cities to do free testing for everyone within the county,” said Bango.

Lindsay got involved with Community Organized Relief Effort, or CORE, a nonprofit organization founded by actor Sean Penn following the Haiti earthquake. CORE is currently managing several coronavirus testing sites on behalf of the Los Angeles Fire Department. Bango also started volunteering with the organization and eventually was offered a job. “Every day we go out into the field, put on full protective gear and administer tests. Yesterday, we administered almost 900 tests,” he said.

He enjoys getting to interact with people and be a friendly face to reassure them. “You have a lot of people who are showing up that are scared. And being able to be that person who can chat with them, explain the process and calm them down, and be the face of this project, is a big privilege.”

Because he had experience working in Bio Safety Level 2 facilities from his time in Botswana, Bango has been able to advise CORE’s safety office on the various levels of personal protective equipment necessary for the safety of the organization’s volunteers, workers and patients.

A future life path

Through his experiences in Botswana and Los Angeles, Bango feels his life path is set. “International service was something that interested me, but I never thought it would become a central portion of my life. My whole entire life path now has shifted toward becoming an infectious disease physician and working in the international sphere, probably forever,” he said.

To reach that goal, he is applying to medical schools, with the hope of pursuing an M.D. or an M.D./Ph.D. focused on infectious diseases, parasitology or virology. He appreciates the varied experience he has been able to have, both in the field and in laboratories. “I like the idea of translational research – kind of like I did in Botswana, taking what I learn in the field back to the laboratory and addressing that directly there,” he said.