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NMSU alumna researches mosquito vectors of Zika, dengue

At times she may be found at The Hanley Lab on the New Mexico State University campus, but Katie Young is currently in Borneo studying the ecology of mosquito vectors, an extraordinary research project in an extraordinary location.


 Woman with backpack equipment standing in forest
New Mexico State University Department of Biology doctoral student Katie Young received the 2015 Fulbright Fellowship to study mosquito vectors of Zika virus and dengue virus in Borneo. (Courtesy photo)
Woman sitting in a forest, giving the ?thumbs-up? sign
New Mexico State University Department of Biology doctoral student Katie Young is currently in Malaysian Borneo researching mosquito transmitted viruses such as dengue and Zika. (Courtesy photo)

Young, who is pursuing a doctorate in biology at NMSU, received the prestigious United States Fulbright Student Scholar Award last year. As a Fulbright Fellow, she receives funding to support her travel and research in the southeast Asian island, where she is working with NMSU and The Institute of Health and Community Medicines at the Universiti of Malaysia Sarawak.

?My research focuses on sylvatic arbovirus ecology, specifically mosquito-transmitted viruses such as dengue and Zika, in Malaysian Borneo,? she said. Arboviruses are viruses transmitted by arthropods, such as mosquitoes. ?These two viruses emerged, likely due to spillover, into the human population from ancestral transmission cycles in non-human primates.

?These sylvatic (wild animal) viruses still circulate today and occasionally spill over into humans and often cause severe disease. My research aims to better understand the ecological drivers of spillover or host-jumps of mosquito-borne viruses.?

Young is collecting Aedes mosquito eggs in oil palm plantations and forests, where she is investigating how land cover may influence egg-laying cues for mosquito vectors and how mosquito blood source hosts are impacted by land cover. She also collects eggs from the boundary between these two land cover types.

?I collect blood-fed mosquitoes, mosquitoes which have recently taken blood from a host, and analyze the blood for the species from which it was taken,? Young said. ?We collect these mosquitoes at varying distances from oil palm plantations, the main monoculture in Sarawak, Malaysia, to test for differences in diversity the farther you travel away from a plantation and into a forest.?

Forested areas converted to agriculture may affect the diversity of host species available to Aedes mosquitoes and may potentially be a driver of spillover if the remaining animals are potential hosts.

?Many mosquitoes take blood from multiple animal hosts; however, some species are very host-specific,? she said. ?Because not all animals are capable of being infected with and transmitting certain arboviruses, diversity is a potential safety against viral spillover.?

Young has been able to build on her coursework in virology and emerging infectious diseases to study the viral infection of mosquitoes under the mentorship of Kathryn A. Hanley, associate professor of biology at NMSU.

Hanley, who holds a doctorate in biology and post-doctoral training in molecular virology, emphasized the importance of Young?s academic research.

?Katie has been doing ground-breaking research on the identity and distribution of the mosquito vectors of Zika virus and dengue virus in Borneo,? Hanley said. ?We know that the Zika virus strain that hit the Americas came from Asia, but we know almost nothing about the behavior of the virus in Asia. Thus Katie?s research is very important for public health both abroad and here in New Mexico, where the mosquito vectors of Zika and dengue virus also occur.?

In Hanley?s lab, Young has developed expertise in a variety of methodologies ranging from virus culture to molecular taxonomy, which allows her to identify distinct mosquito species.

?Dr. Hanley put a lot of faith in me and allowed me to collect my master?s thesis data in Borneo,? Young said. ?That experience truly prepared me for this long-term project I am conducting in Borneo now. She also pushed me to expand my abilities, not just in ecological research, but also microbiology and molecular biology.?

Young said working in The Hanley Lab at NMSU has helped her develop into a well-rounded scientist with a broad background.

?Without her advising and without the experience I?ve gained from working with her and the other Hanley Lab students, I don?t think I would be able to undertake such a large project,? she said.

After earning a bachelor?s degree in biology from Longwood University in 2008, Young earned a master?s degree in biology from NMSU in 2015.

The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and is designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.

For more information on The Hanley Lab at NMSU, visit http://biology-web.nmsu.edu/~hanley/index.html. For mosquito tips, visit mosquitotips.nmsu.edu.