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Strange attraction

Will this special delivery attract mosquitoes? It may be the only time we hope the answer is yes.

By Joni Moths Mueller

The Père Marquette Day Dinner gives faculty an evening to honor outstanding colleagues. In an unusual twist this year President Michael Lovell paused during his remarks and raised a Ziploc sandwich bag above the lectern and into the light. Tucked inside was one pair of soiled socks — his own socks — worn two weeks earlier running the Boston Marathon. Lovell handed the sealed specimen to Dr. George Corliss. That pair joined another pair of Boston-proud socks contributed by runner Dr. Gary Krenz. Weeks later the celebrity socks were jetted 8,000-plus miles from Marquette to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in Corliss’ carry-on bag and then taxied to the Ifakara Health Institute, where the smelly socks met the olfactory sense of mosquitoes.

Research often buzzes along unusual paths.

Computer science student Colin Quinn was stung by the bug that attracts inquiring minds to unusual research. Quinn was also literally stung — dozens of times — by a particular type of the insect when he lowered his arm into a mesh enclosure where captured mosquitoes fed, drawing blood and leaving itchy welts up and down his forearm. He did it for the sake of science and realized he shouldn’t complain; his lab partner feeds that frenzy every day.

The objective of this daily bloodletting has formed a bond between Marquette and the global priority of eradicating malaria. Quinn became the latest personification of the bond when he spent the final five months of his junior year working a research co-op at the Ifakara Institute, which stands in the village of Ifakara, a place Quinn calls a “hotbed of malarial activity.”

He was present when CNN came to the institute to do a story about mosquito-repelling sandals developed by researchers there. A day later representatives from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation arrived for what Ifakara Institute staffers told Quinn was the most important visit of the year. The Gates Foundation, which set the ambitious goal of eliminating malaria by 2029, could be a funding source for many research projects being undertaken by researchers at the institute. “It was cool to see the amount of energy in the room as leaders from Ifakara and the Gates Foundation discussed the future of the malaria-elimination movement,” Quinn blogged.

The idea of participating in research of deterrents to malaria at the Ifakara Institute was planted in Quinn after he met Dr. Samson Kiware, Grad ’10, ’14. Kiware is one of a handful of graduate students who’ve come to Marquette from Tanzania in recent years to earn advanced degrees. Corliss, a senior research scientist and professor emeritus of electrical and computer engineering in the Opus College of Engineering, and the students — Paul Kaefer, Eng ’13, Grad ’15, Kiware and Masabho Milali, Grad ’17— established the kinship credited with closing the distance between Milwaukee and Dar es Salaam.

Inspired by his students’ commitment to fight malaria in their home country, Corliss began traveling to the Ifakara Institute to help. He delivered Lovell and Krenz’s socks on his sixth trip in four years. “I help any way I can,” he says, “primarily by mentoring the young scientists on statistical analysis, writing and explaining their research. The biggest attraction is to work with really smart, committed, gifted scientists who are doing world-class research. But there is also the impact of that science, the prospect really exists to eliminate malaria from the face of the earth and the idea that I may have had a teeny involvement — the social impact is captivating for me.”

Bringing the socks to Tanzania, Corliss admits, was pure theatre. “They don’t need our socks,” he says. “They have plenty of kids playing soccer who can turn over a lot of their own sweaty socks. But this calls attention to and demonstrates Marquette’s commitment to advancing science. That’s what’s important.”

It’s what captured Quinn’s imagination and put him on the plane to Tanzania.

Quinn experienced a little culture shock his first day in Ifakara. He was alone and spoke very little Swahili. But speed the clock ahead a few hours, to when Quinn sat down with his new colleagues and their families at a welcome dinner, and his adventure was well underway.

Soon he began pitching in on the research, doing things he probably hadn’t anticipated. He hunted for wild mosquitoes, dissected mosquito abdomens to see if they’d mated and carried eggs, and he worked on the Olfactometer or smell machine.

Quinn’s research mentor at the institute, Dr. Fredros Okumo, designed the Olfactometer to bait mosquitoes with smells. “We have used chicken feathers, our fingers and dog hair. … and we hope to move to smelly socks soon,” Quinn blogged, before Marquette’s special package of socks arrived. “Many of the scientists have family here in Ifakara, and working toward the elimination of malaria, even on a smaller scale like mine, is a task everyone takes seriously.”

America has its own history with malaria, but thanks to science and medicine, malaria has been considered eradicated from the United States since 1951. That success doesn’t hold worldwide. In 2015 Medicines for Malaria Venture reported an estimated 429,000 malarial deaths worldwide, most heavily hit are children under five years of age, most of them living in Africa. The Centers for Disease Control lays out the size of the problem on its website: “3.2 billion live in areas at risk of malaria transmission in 106 countries and territories.”

Insecticidal nets hung over beds and bug repellent sprays are some of the most effective tools currently used to reduce contact with mosquitoes. Both provide ample protection indoors. But mosquitoes feed on people and animals outdoors and, with each bite, certain species may deliver parasites into the blood. If those parasites multiply, the result can be malaria. “The passing of the malaria parasite from one organism to another is one of the main areas of concentration when looking at the problem of malaria transmission,” explains Quinn. Scientists at the Ifakara Institute want to identify the factors that lead to transmission.

It may be hard to conceive but this pesky insect that annoys us as it buzzes around and prepares to strike has a powerful olfactory sense. Quinn’s lab uses the smell machine to take advantage of that trait. “One of the main factors that leads to people being bitten is the mosquito is attracted to the way we smell, our perspiration and exhaled carbon dioxide. We are using the Olfactometer to learn more about the way human smells attract mosquitoes.”

The lab uses a controlled environment to bait the same batch of mosquitoes for as many smell experiences as possible. Mosquitoes are placed in a stimulus chamber, which Quinn calls a race course, and researchers watch and count the mosquitoes as they race toward the more alluring of two competing smell baits. “We record all of the outcomes to see what smell attracts the most mosquitoes,” Quinn explains.

When the Marquette socks were loaded at opposing ends of the Olfactometer, the scientific result was quickly clear. Krenz won a dubious distinction and the winner’s title. The professor of mathematics, statistics and computer science admitted neither he nor his wife was surprised.

Quinn was able to demonstrate the smell machine for the representatives from the Gates Foundation. “They seemed to really like the idea of smelly sock races,” he says, “and mentioned it wouldn’t be hard for them to get socks that belong to Bill Gates to test their smelliness.”

That was precisely the reaction Quinn and Ifakara’s researchers hoped for. “One of our goals with this project is to enhance the public’s engagement with malaria research,” Quinn says. “I believe the next time they visit, they will be hauling some famous smelly socks with them.” •

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