SRI Stories: Turning student researchers Loose


Mosquitoes, those pesky little aviators we spend a lot of time swatting at, are pesky for two reasons: they carry diseases, like malaria–true–but they are also guilty of harassment.

Chris Bibbs, Great Salt Lake

Yes. Harassment, regardless of how you pronounce the word, will get you in trouble by your local mosquito abatement district (appropriately acronym-ed as “MAD”). It turns out that the pest in “pesky” can actually have a deleterious effect on lifestyle, kids walking to and from school, vacationers and can even, eventually, impact the local economy.

Whether it’s dodging dengue or out-maneuvering the little dogfighting Red Barons as you try to conduct business, Salt Lake Valley has one of the first MADs in the country, predating the Center for Disease Control and Prevention known for its recent flurry of COVID-19 mandates by more than twenty years.

And Salt Lake City MAD (SLCMAD), located north of the airport down on the floodplain by the Great Salt Lake, is also the catalyst for one of the Science Research Initiative’s (SRI’s) celebrated research streams that science students can participate in.

Ready to get bitten by the bug of composite biology research? You’ll be in good hands. Toxicologist and behavioralist Christopher Bibbs, SLCMAD’s laboratory director, and SRI stream leader with his colleague Nate Byers and others can take you the distance into the fascinating world of mosquitos as they interface with public health and environmental concerns.

“Although our job is to deal with the mosquitoes, we coexist with this entire system,” says Chris, meaning that scientists don't just survey only those of us with a blood-flush target on us. “We look at non-targets; we look at migratory bird pathways; we look at invasives; we look at general composite biology.” To work in abatement doesn’t just mean you’re a mosquito murderer–fly swatter in hand or the wielder of broad-spectrum pesticides, which do not discriminate what they kill; you have to be concerned about the types of interventions you experiment with.

“If you introduce this into the system, does it cause harm?” Chris is quick to ask. “If we use a pesticide? Does it create a pollution build–up? If we use a trap, does this give a reasonable inference on what's going on in the area? We do all these types of exploratory projects, because again, the goal is to help track and control mosquitoes. So, any discipline that we can use, whether that's biochemistry, bioinformatics, spatial modeling, whatever — engineering — it's a tool for us.”

Under the direction of molecular biologist Nate who sets up the traps — 60 at a time — team members do viral surveillance looking for viruses in field-caught mosquitoes. This is followed by collating and analyzing data. Research at SLCMAD presents a field as well as a lab component to the experience. And the work is not only ultimately a public service but the process sets up an exploratory site emblematic of the kind of pure science inquiries that undergraduates are asked (and encouraged) to do at the University of Utah.

Indubitably, sheer curiosity drives the research.

Past students during the spring semester (2023) stream were not just dodging bites by female mosquitoes (the ones who need a blood meal to produce eggs). No, these SRI students were asking questions and setting up experiments that helped vector the SLCMAD team in different but productive research directions, something SLCMAD is eternally grateful for.

“The stuff that we're doing isn't just some fundamentalisms about the fields,” says Chris, who has a lot to say about his work as SRI stream leader and preceptor with the U students and other interns. “It's stuff that can actually help people, maybe change a process, maybe improve the way you look at data. Maybe it's just a new method of doing something, designing equipment, new traps, or something like that. So, this is the kind of stuff that's actually very easy to get out there. Because it's tangible and useful to people. So that's something I can pretty reliably offer.”

Chris and his team are relatively regimented in their mentoring. “I try to figure out what you like,” says Chris, referring to his mentees. “It's not even what you've been trained in. What do you like, right now? What are you interested in? What do you want to do? And I try to take those interests and piece them together with stuff that we have already talked about that we would like to do.” This is followed by a review of the research literature and then, says Chris, “I kind of turn you loose.”

The result has been gratifying. Students have come to him with ideas–sometimes that make him raise an eyebrow–but that ends up productive, like looking at how common synthetic sugar additives trigger forceful hypoglycemic reactions that are toxic to mosquitoes. Or, like the freshman student who kept bringing up the component of vision in the animal which is typically thought to be olfactory driven. “He was absolutely right,” says Chris, of the student whose findings from bio assays were eventually paired with research being done by biology professor Neil Vickers who is on the SLCMAD board.

“On top of that,” continues Chris, “for us as a district, you know, [this student’s work] pertained to a mosquito that actively harasses people all year long.” Now, the District is planning on using this information to attempt better surveillance on the species which, if left unchecked, can cause heart-worm disease in domestic animals like cats and dogs.

But wait. There’s more!

Both of these research questions led to experiments, data, conclusions and eventually a paper–more than one. (Not a bad thing to publish papers as an undergraduate. You can read one of these papers co-authored by undergrad Irvane Nelson here.)

“I'm super proud of the SRI involvement with this, because I kind of went into this not knowing what to expect, but I feel like with their unique creativity, and how they look at stuff, they really contributed a lot to this whole equation. It's kind of funny [the process], but it's like now … you were on the money!”

There’s something infectious, no pun intended, about Chris and Nate’s animated descriptions of what might appear as an unlikely marriage of an entity whose main goal is public health with an auxiliary function of research with an SRI teaching lab at the U. Part of that elevated feeling is likely that, to do their mission-driven job, MAD deploys every aspect of biology, ecology, chemistry, physics, and “every nuance and subdiscipline” to get the job of mosquito abatement done.

It’s a model for targeted, real-work experience connected with academics and research, and — except for the mosquitoes — everyone, especially SRI students, seem to benefit.

By David Pace

SRI Stories is a series by the College of Science, intended to share transformative experiences from students, alums, postdocs and faculty of the Science Research Initiative. To read more stories, visit the SRI Stories page.