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Student Research Spotlight - Shelley Whitehead

Posted: August 6, 2015

This is the 12th of thirteen short news articles written by students, during the professional development class, about each other's research.

by Kaixi Zhao

Who wants to be chased by some overly excited mosquitoes? These persistent insects can be more than just a nuisance: they may be infected with malaria. “About half a million people die of malaria every year,” said Shelley Whitehead, a PhD student in the Thomas lab in Penn State, Department of Entomology. She is helping to investigate how malaria changes the behavior of female mosquitoes, a detail crucial to combatting the disease.

Malaria is a deadly infectious disease caused by parasitic protozoans (a type of single cell microorganism). Female mosquitoes pick up the parasite from infected people when they bite to obtain blood needed to nurture their eggs. Inside the mosquito, the parasites develop and mature. When the mosquito bites again, the parasites mix with her saliva and pass into the blood of the person being bitten.

Several studies have reported that malaria can alter the behavior of mosquitoes and those alterations may increase the transmission of the disease. Malaria infected mosquitos live longer, and bite more!

Whitehead said, “I intend to investigate questions related to the relationship between mosquitoes and this parasite. How will these parasite-induced changes in behavior alter existing public health interventions? Can we quantify these behavioral changes? Malaria is a complicated problem, and the solution will be equally difficult to untangle.”

Other scientists in the Thomas lab found that infection-induced behavior change can greatly increase the number of infectious bites compared with uninfected mosquitoes. The research could lead to novel approaches for controlling malaria in the future. “It could change vector control efforts,” said Whitehead. “These findings can alter public health decisions, policy, community awareness, program design and implementation, especially in developing countries.”