NSU students participate in summer mosquito surveillance project

Two female college students in lab coats smiling in front of microscopes

ABERDEEN, S.D. – Olivia Becker and Kristen Calderon know a lot more about mosquitoes than the average college student.

That’s because for the past two summers, the Northern State University students have participated in Northern’s mosquito surveillance project, a grant-funded partnership with the South Dakota Department of Health.

This is the ninth summer that the university has collaborated with SDDOH on the project, aimed at identifying and testing mosquitoes that can carry West Nile virus, said NSU Associate Professor of Biochemistry Dr. Jon Mitchell. NSU students Jessica Stockert of Belle Fourche, Matthew Grebner of Aberdeen and Jackson Harrison of Aberdeen round out this mosquito-season’s mosquito/WNV hunting crew.

For Becker and Calderon, both Wolves Soccer players, that means after early morning soccer practice, most of their weekdays consist of checking mosquito traps out in rural Brown County. Five traps – each of which consists of a battery, a CO2 tank, and a fan – are set up around the county: one in Warner, one Stratford, two at Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge, and one on the Elm River.

The CO2 attracts the mosquitoes much like humans do, explained Becker, and the fan sucks them into the cup. They started surveillance June 1, and cups have been full every time. But this time of the summer is primetime for Culex tarsalis, the major type of mosquito that carries West Nile.

Once they collect the traps, they bring them to the lab to count them, looking through a microscope to determine if they are Culex tarsalis. They’re specifically looking for white patch on the proboscis (the mosquito’s “needle” which allows the female to draw blood), stripes on the mosquito’s legs as well as a rounded shape to its bottom (abdomen), Calderon explained. Then, they test the Culex tarsalis for the virus by isolating RNA and using quantitative RT-PCR specifically designed to find West Nile virus. 

As of the last of July, two positive quantitative RT-PCR samples have come back positive for West Nile virus. This time of year is peak season for mosquitoes, so one should be sure to wear mosquito repellent, perhaps long sleeves and pants, plus limit outdoor activities early mornings and evenings if you don’t want to get bitten.

At first, it took them a lot longer to identify the types of mosquitoes because they were new to it. But the more you do it, they said, the more you know what you’re looking for.

“It’s not too hard to tell,” said Calderon, from Frisco, Texas.

Sometimes they’ll find surprises in the cups in form of other pests – such as spiders, moths, flies, even ticks or wasps.

Educating Others about Mosquitoes

Admittedly, working with mosquitoes is not a common summer research project.

“It’s weird to explain to people,” said Becker, from Hartford, S.D.

But they both enjoy it. Now, they often find themselves educating others about mosquitoes – the fact that there are different types, and only one type carries the virus.

Both students are entering their senior year and plan to go to physician’s assistant school after Northern. They’re both also conducting separate Honors thesis research projects involving mosquitoes using data they’re currently collecting but applied in a different way.

Fortunate to have Research Opportunity

The students said they’re fortunate to have this type of research opportunity at Northern. Friends who attend larger universities don’t have this type of experience.

“Undergraduate research – you have to apply to it, and only certain people get selected,” Calderon said. “They really don’t have this experience, so we’re super lucky.”

For more information on student research opportunities at Northern, visit NSU Undergraduate Research.

About Northern State University

Northern State University is a student-centered institution that provides an outstanding educational experience, preparing students through the liberal arts and professional education for their future endeavors. A regional university, Northern offers rigorous academics; diverse civic, social and cultural opportunities; and a commitment to building an inclusive environment for all points of view. Northern also offers a broad-based athletics program, sponsoring 15 NCAA Division II intercollegiate varsity sports that compete in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (NSIC). The university strives to enrich the community through partnerships such as its Educational Impact Campaign, which opened a new South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired; new athletic and recreation fields; and, soon, an on-campus regional sports complex. With the $55 million campaign, NSU has been the recipient of more than $100 million in privately funded building projects and scholarships within a decade. To learn more, visit NSU Admissions.

Pictured: Kristen Calderon (left), and Olivia Becker (right)