Let’s Collaborate: How Entomology Students Can Drive Multidisciplinary Work
By Gerald Simons
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series contributed by the ESA Student Affairs Committee. See other posts by and for entomology students here at Entomology Today.
Living on the eastern end of Long Island in New York, I have grown up surrounded by ticks. Years ago, the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), which transmits Lyme disease, predominated, but over the last few years the lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum), which transmits the life-altering alpha-gal meat allergy, has established a clear presence in my area. The infections these arthropods carry have directly affected many of my friends and family. A passing interest in this has developed into an entomological passion, to the point where I am often called upon to identify a tick, provide advice on the ideal repellent for specific outdoor activities, or remove a tick with one of my favorite devices.
I am a well-known visitor to many of the local parks and trails. I have swept for ticks as part of my research projects and have a general idea about safe versus unsafe areas to explore. Last year, though, as urban dwellers fled the cities to escape the COVID-19 pandemic, I began to notice that the local hiking trails and parks were becoming crowded, even to the point of becoming overcrowded. Due to the COVID-19, residents from New York City fled eastward on Long Island, and sometimes this was their first encounter with a much more wooded area. While everyone was quarantined due to government regulations, the exhaustion from being at home led people to the outdoors. But, for those relatively new to Long Island, many were not prepared to deal with ticks during their excursions. Not only was there a widespread lack of knowledge, but everyone’s mind was focused on COVID-19 so that the issues of ticks was seemingly forgotten.
Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases are widespread but most prominently affect Northeastern and Midwestern states. Treatment costs are estimated at $1.3 billion annually. Each year, as many as 476,000 people are treated for Lyme disease, and an even greater number of cases may be misdiagnosed or go unreported. Certainly, the impact of tick-borne disease can’t be understated. Treatment can be straightforward if the illness is caught promptly; but, if it is not detected early, patients may experience a range of issues, and we know that Lyme disease symptoms may persist long term in up to 10-20 percent of people affected by Lyme disease. This explains why the outdoors is such a hazardous place if proper precautions are not taken.
As I watched newcomers exploring those Long Island trails, I pondered whether the COVID-19 restrictions that brought them there would increase the rate of vector-borne disease and possibly trigger a second outbreak. The implications of the question are broad, ranging from economic and geographic, to sociological, political, and more.
For students of entomology, this is a moment of opportunity. Rather than expecting researchers in other fields to reach out, it is time for us to take the lead on investigating this popular theory and take action to mitigate this new wave of vector-borne diseases. Undergraduate students have a unique platform of access to an array of disciplines, and they should be encouraged to study and solve this problem. To list a few examples of the fields of study that could approach this challenge:
- Economics: Are the affluent more affected by the vector-borne disease, as they have the opportunity to escape an urban living, or are lower-income populations more at risk because they have less access to protective gear and repellents?
- Mathematics: Student mathematicians and statisticians can help us design models to provide greater insight into population data. It is always better for a student of entomology to have a problem for a math student than vice versa, in my opinion.
- Sociology: Sociologists can help us understand why certain populations have a greater awareness of and ability to prevent dangerous tick bites. Can sociologists shed light on behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic and thereby help mitigate the transmission risks of the vector-borne disease?
- Political science: Political science majors can help us focus on legislation and government involvement. We need government funding to support research to control of vectors and to fund public health programs to reduce the growing problem of vector-borne disease. While some local governments have advocated for changing public policy on ticks, the topic hasn’t received enough attention to bring about national change.
- Environmental science: A partnership here is urgently needed. As climate change affects the spread of arthropod vectors of disease, the help of these specialists is critical.
- Medicine: Pre-medical and medical students are an ideal population that is growing rapidly. Pre-med students are looking for experience to help build their applications to medical school. Students can assist in documenting cases and reporting them to county public health departments. As the next generation of physicians, they can become more knowledgeable in this field. As the younger generation grows up during the COVID-19 pandemic, many students are turning their interests toward the medical field, as reflected in a rise of applications to medical schools.
- Chemistry: Students of chemistry can help with research on insecticide resistance or on alternative repellents or management methods, including essential oils. In my personal work, I have found essential oils with lemon, cedar, and eucalyptus to be effective in reducing tick attachments.
- Communications: Communication and media students can design public service announcements to educate the public, with a focus on trails and parklands. They can develop marketing materials for healthcare professionals and alert them to this potential problem.
My focus for the past three years has been on ticks, an underappreciated field. My research, done through the University at Albany’s University in the High School Program, has included investigating the effects of climate change on tick spread, essential oils as potential safe repellents, and the role of invasive plant species increasing tick populations.
To make up for the lack of understanding regarding ticks and Lyme disease, the incoming generation of entomologists, physicians, and researchers have an important opportunity to take action. Ticks plague large swaths of the United States, with most of Americans not realizing the effect they have on our society. I would encourage you to start a small research survey in your own department or school to measure the potential impact of COVID-19 restrictions on vector-borne disease.
Of course, this multidisciplinary approach can be easily applied to a variety of other public issues involving entomology. For example, there are concerning population declines in the honey bees and other pollinators, the threat of invasion of the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia), and the persistent problem of insect infestation in many low-income housing communities. A broad multidisciplinary approach is essential to solving these and other growing problems in our field, and student members of ESA can take the lead in pulling teams together.
High school and undergraduate students have a platform for collaborative research across a range of disciplines. The undergraduate arena offers a realm for creative solutions to assess and mitigate this emerging health crisis. It gives us access to academic resources in biology, veterinary medicine, history, agricultural studies, sociology, and more. And studying the prevention of insect-borne disease in the age of COVID-19 is particularly urgent. As urban dwellers venture outdoors, they are unaware of the risks of mosquito and tick-transmitted diseases. Our role would involve the study of human behavior, the vectors of the disease itself, and possible methods to minimize exposure. Student members of the ESA are well-suited to prioritize the continuing growth of vector-borne disease in an interdisciplinary fashion. Start today!
Gerald Simons is a student member of ESA and a senior at East Hampton High School in Long Island, New York. He is a third-year student in the University at Albany Advanced Methods in Research course. Simons offers special thanks to science research advisor Paul Rabito, biology mentor Renee McGuire, and ESA Student Affairs Committee Chair Patricia Prade, Ph.D. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.