January 25, 2011

The Scientist: Laura Harrington

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The yellow fever virus has drastically changed America’s history. The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 that hit Philadelphia dashed the city’s hopes of becoming the young nation’s capital.  Also, the Louisiana Purchase happened only after Napoleon lost 90 percent of an expeditionary force in the New World to yellow fever.

While for most of us in America, yellow fever and other mosquito-borne diseases are in the past, for Prof. Laura Harrington, entomology, these diseases are very much still relevant. Harrington studies the mating and blood feeding patterns of Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that transmits yellow fever, dengue fever, and Chikungunya. Along with mating, blood feeding has been found to be crucial in the reproductive cycle of mosquitoes.

“If you can interfere with the mating behavior biology, you can interrupt reproduction and you could eliminate populations,” Harrington said.

Harrington’s group recently discovered that mosquitoes sing to each other during mating in a “delicate duet” and that the ability to sing well is correlated to mating success. The findings have brought acoustic biology into the study of mosquito mating behavior.

Current projects include an investigation into proteins in male seminal fluid that, when transferred, could influence blood feeding and reproduction in females and a study on how climate change might affect how quickly mosquito-borne diseases spread.

The hope is that these projects will be able to generate feasible targets to disrupt the mating of the mosquitoes.

Harrington’s lab also participated in the Grand Challenges in Global Health funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in developing a mosquito that is unable to transmit the dengue virus. The theory behind the project is that the genetically modified mosquito would be more fit and thus able to push the dengue vector mosquitoes out of the environment, eliminating dengue.

While deeply involved in groundbreaking research, Harrington is also devoted to training the next generation of scientists. Last year, Harrington received the Provost’s Award for Distinguished Scholarship for her work mentoring post-doctorate, graduate, and undergraduate students. As a mentor, Harrington always encourages students to have a fieldwork component to their research and to have an extremely open mind.

Harrington explained, “You can work in the lab your entire career and never have a sense of the context and the real human impact of what you are doing.”

Studying in Thailand for two years with the native people put mosquito borne diseases in the context of other problems, like poverty and chronic disease. Harrington feels that experience has made her work more realistic and continues to be involved with programs in Thailand. Along with the site in Thailand, Harrington also has projects in Mexico and Tanzania, demonstrating her commitment to bringing the real world aspect of research to her students and to giving aid to those most affected by mosquito-borne diseases.

One thing that did not escape Harrington’s notice is that knowing the science is not enough to be a good scientist. Harrington emphasized that the next generation of scientists will need to be well rounded and able to communicate with and understand people.

I would like to see some changes in how students and post-docs are trained,” Harrington stated “and give them more of a broader prospective.”

Original Author: Seyoun Kim