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Of Math & Mosquitos: Diversity of Opportunity Enables Student to Pursue Dual Interests

Build a better mousetrap, they say, and the world will beat a path to your door. Deep in the woods of Lancaster County's Millport Conservancy, Joshua Finkel is after even smaller prey, the mosquito, though his research into making more effective mosquito traps could have much the same result with its potential to save public health agencies and beleaguered homeowners untold thousands of dollars trying to control the bloodsucking insects.

Despite their diminutive size, mosquitoes often are called the world's most dangerous animal because of their tendency to transmit serious diseases such as malaria, encephalitis, Dengue Fever and West Nile virus. Today, more than 3 billion people live in areas at risk of malaria transmission, reports the World Health Organization, which estimated some 207 million infections and more than 625,000 deaths worldwide in 2012, the latest year for which data are available.

  • of math and mosquitos
  • Franklin & Marshall College senior Joshua Finkel sets up a mosquito trap at the Millport Conservancy, an 85-acre plant and wildlife refuge associated with F&M. Finkel spent the summer of 2014 perfecting a low-cost version of the trap that he hopes public health agencies can use to curtail the spread of disease by the insects, which cause an estimated 625,000 deaths a year globally. (Photo by Melissa Hess)

During the summers of 2012 and 2013, Finkel -- a senior who actually majors in math at Franklin & Marshall College and not, as one might surmise from his zoological curiosity, a more germane field such as biology -- worked close to home as a mosquito control intern with the Philadelphia Health Department (PHD), setting mosquito traps throughout the city, treating standing water to prevent mosquito breeding, and responding to complaints from city residents with mosquito problems. From those experiences emerged two issues that shaped his research this year at Millport, an 85-acre plant and wildlife refuge with which F&M partners.

"First, I felt there needed to be a more affordable trap available for homeowner purchase," said Finkel, noting that while consumer models are available for around $100, they are far less effective than more sophisticated devices costing as much as $1,000. "Second, there needs to be an affordable and easy-to-prepare attractant for the trap. There is a wide range of attractants on the market, but most, if not all, involve high costs. Some attractants, like dry ice, need to be replaced daily, while others are made using various expensive chemicals such as lactalbumin (a mammalian milk protein) that must be purchased online."

Maintaining the PHD's network of traps throughout the mosquito season could cost upward of $15,000, said Finkel, who was advised throughout the independent research project by Professor of Economics and Weis College House Don Sean Flaherty.

"It may not seem that much, until you start multiplying by the number of other city and county health departments across the state and around the country," he said. "Then we're looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars or more."

Armed with "many ideas that [he] was eager to begin testing," Finkel late last spring set up in two locations at Millport, which he describes as a better fit for his experiments than Philadelphia because it is a secure area offering both wooded and wetland environments. With funding provided by the College through a John Marshall Scholarship for community and public service, he bought one commercial trap for a few hundred dollars. The other he assembled himself out of materials acquired from a local Wal-Mart.

Preliminary results suggest the two apparatuses function equally well in capturing mosquitos, of which there are an astonishing 3,500 species globally. However, the potential breakthrough of his research, Finkel said, resulted from his tinkering with different formulas for producing an attractant known as "stink water," which normally is mixed using the pricey lactalbumin.

"I may have found a pretty effective substitute using whey protein (an assortment of globular proteins isolated from whey, a fluid byproduct of cheese production), and that translates into a huge price decrease."

Although he's been urged to look into patenting his reformulated attractant, Finkel -- currently considering going to medical school after his graduation from F&M -- says that for the moment he is pleased just to contribute to improving methods for regulating problematic mosquito populations.

His next opening comes in late October, when he's expected to share his results at the annual conference of the Pennsylvania Vector Control Association.

"My former boss at the Philadelphia Health Department suggested that I present my findings at the conference," Finkel said. "It's another great opportunity from being able to study and do research at F&M, and it'll be a great experience, I'm sure."