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Mosquitoes Beware: Mary Garvin's
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Mosquito-Control Project Combines Learning and Service for Student Assistants

by Anne C. Paine, photos by Al Fuchs

At this time of year, most people forget about mosquitoes. But not Mary Garvin. She thinks about those pesky insects all year long.

If you visited her lab now, you might find her identifying mosquitoes she collected last summer. Or she might be analyzing data, writing a paper, or perfecting the habitat in her mosquito incubators. "Every 10 minutes in the field results in an hour's work in the lab," the assistant professor of biology said.

Garvin, who specializes in how organisms interact with one another and transmit disease, arrived in Oberlin three and a half years ago, having just completed postdoctoral work at the University of Notre Dame. Among the projects she worked on there was a mosquito control program. It didn't take long for Oberlin to tap into that knowledge.

"As I was walking to lunch one day, someone asked me to come to a City Council meeting that night to answer questions about mosquitoes. Twelve hours later I was chairing the mosquito-control committee," she laughed. The Oberlin Mosquito-Control Project was born.

"From the time I was little, I collected insects. I remember my grandmother scolding me for playing with bugs."
Mary Garvin

The program, which completed its second year of operation last August, aims to reduce the number of mosquitoes in town and to monitor for Culex mosquitoes, the species most likely to transmit the West Nile virus. The virus has been spreading steadily since it was detected in New York in 1999. Ohio Department of Health officials confirmed that the virus showed up in a dead bird in eastern Ohio last July, and by September, infected birds had been found in Cuyahoga County, which abuts Lorain County. Oberlin is in Lorain County.

Because of West Nile, mosquitoes are a hot topic in many places, but Oberlin residents are more concerned about the tree-hole mosquito, which transmits the LaCrosse encephalitis virus and is found in the city.

Garvin's current research interests include avian malaria, ticks, and mites, but mosquitoes are a primary focus. She supervises the mosquito-control program, which is run in collaboration with the City of Oberlin and the Lorain County General Health District. By cleaning up and eliminating breeding areas, the program targets mosquito larvae, an approach Garvin says is more effective than spraying, which targets only adult mosquitoes.

Two student assistants handle the program's day-to-day operations. To better understand local mosquito populations, twice a week the students collect and count specimens from traps set up in eight locations around town. They also answer requests for help in identifying and treating mosquito habitat on private property that come into the mosquito hotline in Garvin's lab.

Because prior data doesn't exist, quantitative proof that the program works isn't available. But Garvin believes the program is a success. The hotline handled 50 calls during the program's first summer; this summer, dry weather reduced mosquito opulations and fewer calls were received, she said.

Public education efforts have also succeeded, she said. Last spring Garvin and her students collaborated with Associate Professor of English Jan Cooper and students in her Writing in the Sciences course to produce a brochure that includes information on controlling mosquitoes. "Our brochures have made town residents more aware of how to eliminate breeding sites," she said.

Finally, and perhaps most important to the teacher in Garvin, the program is an exceptional opportunity for her students.

"Oberlin students want to apply biology. But when they go to make that application in this project, they find that they have to learn the basics first. The project gives them a great appreciation of the importance of both basic and applied research. They learn basic ecology of mosquitoes, and they learn to translate that to the general public.

"When a student comes back from helping a resident who's called in on the hotline, and he can say, 'I helped someone. I have some knowledge that someone needed today,' that can be a life-altering experience."