GAINESVILLE, Fla. – A desire to see the immediate health impacts of her mosquito research led Casey Parker, an entomology and nematology Ph.D. student at the University of Florida, to become involved in leading mosquito-borne illness trainings for public health officials.
Parker’s experience in public health community outreach led to her involvement in delivering a workshop at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras (UNAH) in San Pedro Sula during Dec. 4-19. Parker planned and conducted the workshop with Barry Alto, an associate professor in the UF/IFAS entomology and nematology department, who serves on Parker’s advisory committee.
“While we think it’s hot in Florida, Honduras is even hotter and has mosquitoes all year round due to the climate and they don’t have half the resources we do,” Parker said. “The outreach UF/IFAS does in this area is very important.”
Due to the current high level of mosquito-borne illnesses – especially dengue – in Honduras, the workshop was timely. Alto was approached in September by Dunia Esmeralda Jeer Perdomo, a UNAH faculty member in the biology department, to develop the workshop content and presentations. Perdomo sought researchers who could train students, faculty, staff and the general public on how to identify risk factors for emerging diseases transmitted by mosquitoes and what they could do about it.
During the workshop, Parker and Alto included theory-based lectures in the morning and hands-on activities in the afternoon to complement the lectures. Nearly 50 chemists; public health officials; doctors and undergraduate, engineering, nursing and medical students attended the workshop.
“When we go to classes or get into niche research, we forget all the ways our research can be applied in other professions,” Parker said. “We had such diverse attendees who all feel a personal responsibility to apply mosquito knowledge to the work that they do and communicate it to relevant populations to eliminate mosquito problems in the area.”
The workshop covered topics including mosquito biology, mosquito-borne viruses (including Zika, dengue and chikungunya), mosquito collection and trapping, rapid diagnostic testing for viruses, identification of mosquitoes, and biological and chemical control of mosquitoes, among others.
Alto mentioned the workshop allowed for both UF and UNAH faculty to begin collaborative multidisciplinary research that will identify risk factors for emerging diseases transmitted by mosquitoes.
“In recent years, I’ve been shifting my program to incorporate more international work,” Alto said. “Honduras has a diverse mosquito community, and is a country with few resources. If there is a place that could use help (with controlling mosquito populations), this is it in my mind.”
The team visited more than 100 homes in underserved populations to train the public on ways to reduce mosquito populations, such as eliminating larval habitats by disposing of containers that collect water. By working with nurses and doctors, the researchers plan to test human blood samples and collect information about human behavior in a future study. The research project will also investigate insecticide effectiveness and resistance in Honduran mosquitoes.
Perdomo will visit Parker and Alto in Florida during early spring to gain additional training on how to continue the research in Honduras, specifically regarding tests to measure insecticide resistance.
“Our goal is to evaluate and to be able to predict risk of mosquito-borne viruses in certain areas, which can be used to benefit public health and modeling projections,” Alto said.
As a UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences student at the Florida Medical Entomology Lab in Vero Beach, Florida, Parker is also working on her master’s in public health through the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions.
“When the opportunity to host a workshop in Honduras came about, selecting Casey to join me made perfect sense,” Alto said. “I thought she could use the research and training to fulfill a requirement in her master’s program, and she could combine both her degrees at the same time in a tangible way.”
Alto mentioned that undergraduate students and prospective graduate students can become involved in his multiyear research collaborations with the Honduran university by contacting him at email@example.com.
The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) administers the degree programs of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). The mission of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences is to deliver unsurpassed educational programs that prepare students to address the world’s critical challenges related to agriculture, food systems, human wellbeing, natural resources and sustainable communities. The college has received more total (national and regional combined) USDA teaching awards than any other institution. Visit the CALS website at cals.ufl.edu, and follow CALS on social media platforms at @ufcals.