Emory student travels to London for mosquito research
By April Hunt | Aug. 13, 2019
Rising Emory College junior Kasey Cervantes is spending the last weeks of his summer surrounded by mosquitoes, work that could eventually play a small role in helping save children’s lives.
Working from the Natural History Museum, London, the biology major is digitally entering the identifying information from at least 1,000 mosquito specimens that are part of one of the world’s largest collections. The details going into a new searchable database, such as the type of mosquito and when and where it was found, now exist only on paper, some with faded, handwritten labels.
The work is at once staggering — requiring analysis of countries that have changed names and borders, for instance – and a drop in the bucket, given the museum’s collection of more than 34 million insects gathered since the 1680s.
“We have all this amazing stuff from hundreds of years, but we do not have ready access to it,” says Erica McAlister, an entomologist and senior curator of Diptera for the world-famous museum. “Knowing what we’ve got is step one of conducting research into the very important puzzle of fighting a deadly disease.”
That disease is malaria, which infects more than 200 million people every year across the globe, transmitted by blood-sucking Anopheles mosquitoes.
Scientists from Wellcome Sanger Institute and Pacific Biosciences read the whole genetic code of one mosquito earlier this year. The database Cervantes is helping create is critical to more genetic sequencing, to uncover when mosquitoes developed the insecticide resistance that is hindering the eradication of malaria in sub-Saharan Africa.
The work could contribute to efforts to save the more than 400,000 patients who die from the disease annually, most of them children under age 5.
“I think of this like interviewing your grandpa and hearing about life before you were born,” Cervantes says. “The stories about what these mosquitoes’ lives were like is fascinating, and knowing them can make a real difference. It’s amazing to think I could have even a small role in helping.”
Interdisciplinary research partnerships
The opportunity is a testament to Cervantes’ and Emory’s shared commitment to undergraduate research. It also highlights Emory’s unique ability to encourage collaboration between its cutting-edge liberal arts and health sciences programs and to form partnerships in the broader community as well.
The connection between Seth Irish, a research entomologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Helen Baker, an assistant professor in Emory’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, sparked the malaria research project last year.
Irish had just finished a routine visit to Baker’s global health nursing course when he mentioned he had spent his recent vacation in London. He spent the entire two weeks starting the cataloging project Cervantes will continue. In that time, he was able to input the records of about 2,500 samples that he needed for his work to monitor the insecticide-resistant insects.
If only a student researcher could help add more samples to the database, Irish said. Then researchers could focus on the historical information for the species that are most problematic today and create maps to pinpoint the geographic distribution over time for further analysis.
“It’s such a very interdisciplinary way to learn,” says Baker, who is also the global and community engagement editor at the Lillian Carter Center for Global Health and Social Responsibility in the School of Nursing. “I knew our students were ideal candidates to tackle the history and health aspects of the overall effort.”
Baker posted about the opportunity on a pre-health blog for undergraduates. Cervantes, who attended Oxford College for his first two years at Emory, was emailing Atlanta professors about research opportunities when he spotted it.
Baker is now Cervantes’ on-campus mentor. Irish is another Atlanta mentor, having trained Cervantes on the basics of specimen handling before he headed to London for his research.
A key part of the training: No coffee drinking while in London.
“You don’t want your hand to shake when you’re handling a delicate, tiny mosquito from 120 years ago,” Irish says.
McAlister, the author of “The Secret Life of Flies,” an homage to the insects that include mosquitoes and the research surrounding them, is training and supervising Cervantes during his time in London.
The cataloging work will open about 125 years of mosquito history to the second generation of gene sequencing. Given that mosquitoes can genetically change themselves quickly and easily, getting the data “absolutely right” is critical to compare newly collected insects to the older specimens, McAlister says.
Information on the genetic variation in the mosquito population can have life-and-death implications in battling disease. The data must be precise across time and the massive 46-country range of the sub-Saharan continent.
“We are a tiny cog of this massive wheel. But it’s integral to have the cog for the wheel to work,” McAlister says.
Cervantes’ research will be useful to academic and research institutions alike. While in London, he will write a blog post on his ongoing research and must submit a final paper to Undergraduate Research Programs when he returns.
He will also present to Baker’s classes and during the undergraduate research fall symposium, while the data itself is in demand from the Smithsonian museum in the United States and multiple research museums in Europe.
“This project really capitalizes on the intellectual ambition of our students and faculty to take on research that makes a difference in the world,” says Cora MacBeth, assistant dean of sciences of the Office of Undergraduate Education.
Cervantes has long had his eye on the real-world impact of research. He spent a year in high school researching and then publishing his findings on what activated the known pathways in breast cancer metastasis.
Medical school seemed a logical eventuality when he first arrived at Oxford two years ago. College broadened his interest in data analysis, shifting his career focus to bioinformatics.
The malaria project presents Cervantes with both a scientific puzzle and the historical data that may help solve it.
“I want to figure out a way to map this, a program that can make it easier and faster to process these millions of specimens,” he says. “We have all these mosquitoes, and who knows what we can find once we can look at all of their stories. This is the dream.”