Allison Gardner is a Ph.D. Candidate in Entomology researching the effects of habitat quality on the reproduction of mosquitoes. In particular, she studies how different species of leaves caught in a storm drain — a favorite breeding place for mosquitoes — can help or hurt efforts to control the population of the disease-carrying insects.
A single leaf can mean life or death for newly-hatched mosquito larvae, she said. Leaf litter found in stagnant pools of water where mosquitoes lay eggs is decomposed by a small army of microorganisms, and different types of microorganisms prefer to feed on different kinds of leaves. When the mosquito larvae hatch, they feed on the microorganisms to grow.
“It turns out that the microbes that grow off (particular types of leaves) are different, and not all of them seem to be equally good resources for the mosquitoes,” Gardner said. “You’ve got some leaf species that are really good for the mosquitoes — they’ll grow quickly and emerge at very high densities. And then you have other leaves that seem to actually even kill mosquitoes for one reason or another.”
It is these killing leaves that are most interesting to her and her team. Quite by accident during a previous research project, she discovered that the leaves of the Illinois-native blackberry plant are very attractive to mosquitoes as a place to lay eggs, but are lethal to the larvae. Now, as part of the iSEE-funded mosquito control research team, she’s working on ways to harness the “attract and kill” properties of blackberry leaves and a few other species.
“We’re going for an approach to mosquito control that could either supplement or actually even displace the need for insecticides in these sorts of systems with this native plant,” she said. “This attract and kill strategy is often used for agricultural pests and forest pests, but to our knowledge it hasn’t really been explored for vector control — especially larval mosquito control. We think it could be a way we could try to improve the efficacy of existing mosquito control strategies.”
Her research year is cut neatly into two halves: summers in the field and winters indoors analyzing her data. From June to September, she works with undergraduate students to add different mixtures of leaves to storm drain mosquito nurseries and measure their effects on mosquito egg laying behavior and the numbers of surviving larvae. During the winter months, she teaches applied statistics classes and focuses on writing up the results of her summer observations.
“Working with the students has really been a highlight of the experience for me. I find that even if I am thinking about the same ideas every summer, when I bring in a new group of students, it’s all brand new for them, so it keeps the whole process fresh for me,” she said. “I (also) really do enjoy the teaching aspect and how research and teaching wind up playing off each other when you bring your research into the classroom and in turn get ideas that you can apply to your research.”
Gardner conducted her first study on mosquitoes when she 14 years old. A unique three-year program at her New York high school paired students interested in science with opportunities to work in a laboratory environment. She cut her research teeth under the mentorship of Theodore Andreadis, now director of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. She completed a project in trapping and identifying species of mosquitoes.
“I think it made me a lot better at writing, presentation, organization,” she said. “A lot of the organizational strategies that I was taught in high school are still things that I do now, in terms of writing statements of goals for each semester and writing notes before every meeting with the professor and such.”
After high school she attended Williams College in Massachusetts and completed a History degree. “That was a bit of a detour, but an interesting one, and a probably very valuable one because of the writing skills and debate skills you get from that kind of background,” she said.
Afterward Gardner joined Illinois professor Marilyn O’Hara Ruiz’s lab to study the transmission of West Nile virus by the Culex pipiens mosquito in the Chicago area and earned a Masters in Pathobiology.
One of her greatest learning experiences as an iSEE researcher, she said, is the development of community and collaboration in her diverse research group.
“People are all kind of speaking different languages when you come into the meeting,” she said. “It’s been interesting to me to see the process of how people learn to share a common language in the group to talk about research problems and how people contribute ideas that are really outside your area of expertise, but you’re able to come together and get to accomplish something that any one person in the group wouldn’t have been able to do on their own. It’s really the first experience I’ve had in truly interdisciplinary work.”
After completing her Ph.D., Gardner hopes to head back to New England and continue her research and teaching.
“I’m interested to go back there with the new set of skills I’ve learned at Illinois and fix problems in the local ecosystem that I grew up in,” she said.