Public Health Entomology Interns, Fellows Gain Interdisciplinary Experience in 2023
By Carolyn Bernhardt
The mosquito holds the paradoxical potential to unleash widespread devastation, transmitting diseases that claim hundreds of thousands of lives each year and driving some of the most significant public health challenges of our time. That’s why the Public Health Entomology for All program fosters a new generation of public health entomologists that can help illuminate the path toward a healthier future.
Through mentorship and hands-on experiences, Public Health Entomology for All (PHEFA) interns and fellows probe the intersections between entomology, public health, and their various individual scientific disciplines, all while gaining valuable insights beyond traditional classroom education. PHEFA is organized by the Entomological Society of America in partnership with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Participants bring a wide range of academic backgrounds and career aspirations that help inform the shape of crucial entomological public health research at various CDC labs and mosquito-control districts across North America.
This year, PHEFA’s second cohort of interns and fellows came on the scene as budding experts in fields such as agricultural entomology, molecular biology, or physical therapy before discovering their passion for the unique junction of insects and public health. This interdisciplinary backdrop enriched their PHEFA experience as well as their understanding of complex ecological systems and interconnected scientific fields.
Get to know a few of the 2023 PHEFA interns and fellows below. And, if you or someone you know is interested in becoming an intern or fellow in public health entomology, learn more and apply. (Applications for 2024 will open in December 2023.)
PHEFA experience: CDC summer intern in Fort Collins, Colorado
Education: B.A. in general biology, University of North Carolina (UNC) Pembroke
Hometown: Fayetteville, North Carolina
Christina Limbert began her academic journey in molecular biology but shifted to general biology due to pandemic-related challenges. Her entomology interest ignited when she enrolled in beekeeping and entomology classes at UNC Pembroke, where she has also taken pest management courses and engaged in various ecology and agriculture-related entomological projects in the community, which focused on bees and wasps.
Limbert’s summer internship with the CDC in Fort Collins, Colorado, exposed her to mosquito control programs, broadening her understanding of public health aspects related to entomology. “It was nice to get a little bit more insight into how the public health field worked,” she says. “It was a nice little look into how CDC works, too, [and it is very] collaborative. It’s nice to see all that teamwork coming together.”
She was particularly interested in the new skills she developed testing chemicals and pesticides used to control mosquitoes. She discovered these chemicals were not as harmful as commonly thought due to their specific manufacturing and dispersal methods. This experience intrigued her, allowing her to explore a different perspective on entomology. “I could use that knowledge to work with mosquito programs in North Carolina or South Carolina,” she says.
Now, Limbert is excited to bring her new skills to her community-focused work close to home. “I love helping people access information,” she says. “There is such a divide between the general public and the science community. You need some in-between to break things down and help the public.”
PHEFA experience: Summer intern at the Anastasia Mosquito Control District in St. Augustine, Florida
Education: Second-year biological systems engineering major at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU)
Hometown: Broward County, Florida
Leyhma Leban’s journey into entomology began when she met Lambert Kanga, Ph.D., who specializes in small hive beetle control using fungicides at FAMU. Prior to the internship, she served as a research assistant to graduate students in Kanga’s lab, assisting with experiments related to small hive beetles.
Through fieldwork, lab work, and collaboration with colleagues in St. Augustine, Leban conducted research comparing mosquito populations in two housing communities with different insect control policies. The experience, she says, expanded her understanding of the interconnection of various scientific disciplines and how ecological factors impact mosquito populations.
Leban wants to become an engineer with a focus on sustainability and environmental impacts, a field in which she says there is a lot to learn from insects. “Once I started to work with the Entomology Department [at FAMU], I realized there is a lot to learn, whether that be through bees as engineers or how they maintain themselves, about the multitude and vastness of the applications of utilizing insects.”
Although Leban was more familiar with bees at the beginning of the internship, she says her research into mosquitoes led to insightful discussions with colleagues, particularly biologists, and employees. She found these conversations often linked back to her background in biological systems engineering in unexpected and unique ways, mainly when it came to exploring the ecology of and the geography of the area. “Not only do you have this low-lying land between two major water sources, but a lot of the development and the human interaction is what creates these population booms,” she says.
Now, Leban is considering the environmental track FAMU offers in the biosystems engineering degree. “I think [the internship experience] opened my mind to how everything is interconnected. So, you can’t do one thing—in this case, impact geography or increase human population—and not expect any ecological implications. So, I think my internship at St. Augustine—working with mosquitoes and going out into the community—made me understand that process.”
Kristen Joy Adkins
PHEFA experience: One-year CDC Fellow in San Juan, Puerto Rico
Education: B.S. and M.S. in agricultural sciences with a concentration in entomology, Florida A&M University
Hometown: Dover, Delaware
“I never really thought about how entomology plays a part in public health,” says Adkins. But, since starting in June, she says the one-year fellowship at the CDC has already broadened her perspective on entomology to include the role of insects in public health, particularly in disease transmission.
After learning about the PHEFA program, Adkins was excited by the process of diving deep into a completely different application of entomology. “I figured this could be a very new experience for me, while also keeping to things that I’m already knowledgeable about,” she says. “I’ve had a strong understanding of entomology because I have two degrees in it. But being able to apply that knowledge to a whole different sector has been refreshing, new, and exciting.”
As the sole fellow in Puerto Rico for the year, Adkins is a part of two projects focused on Aedes aegypti and dengue fever. The first compares mosquito-catching rates using three different autocidal traps (which catch and kill female mosquitoes seeking to lay eggs). The second project investigates the susceptibility of four mosquito populations in southern Puerto Rico to nine different insecticides.
Adkins says that, because her team does a lot of fieldwork to collect mosquito samples to test in the lab, they have a strong relationship with the people in the community. “I’ve met so many people that have either had dengue or know somebody that’s had dengue fever,” she says. “And so it’s very relevant here.”
When her fellowship wraps up in May 2024, Adkins hopes to begin embarking on a career that allows her to do outreach and extension work. She enjoys the opportunity to educate people, especially children, about insects. She hopes to inspire individuals, especially girls and women, to pursue careers in entomology and related fields, breaking barriers and showcasing that anyone with a passion for insects can make a meaningful impact.
PHEFA experience: One-year CDC Fellow in Atlanta, Georgia
Education: B.S. in health science with a concentration in pre-physical therapy and M.S. in agricultural science with a concentration in entomology from Florida A&M University
Hometown: Miami, Florida
Initially, Jamesia Henderson pursued an undergraduate degree in health science. But, challenges posed by COVID-19 hindered clinical learning experiences, so she explored different career options and became interested in entomology thanks to the influence of her older sister and close friend, both entomologists. She received a scholarship for the entomology program at FAMU and pursued her master’s degree.
Henderson’s master’s research focused on honey bee health, particularly studying Varroa mites and small hive beetles. Testing various concentrations of fungal pathogens and new-generation insecticides to combat small hive beetles with the goal of addressing concerns of resistance and overexposure, she aimed to develop integrated pest management (IPM) strategies to ensure honeybee populations remain healthy.
Henderson initially expected to start from scratch in studying a new insect altogether, but, she says, “I would say [the fellowship] intersects [with my graduate work] in terms of the insecticides used for mosquitoes. Most of the time, honey bees are often affected by insecticides sprayed to control mosquitoes.” Understanding mosquitoes as significant vectors has motivated her to explore different IPM strategies that will limit harm to beneficial insects. This process, she says, helps put her previous work into a new perspective.
Henderson plans to contribute to the field of entomology by encouraging underrepresented groups, especially women and minorities, to consider careers in entomology and agriculture. Her long-term career goal is to work in a federal agency or industry related to entomology and agriculture. She also strives to bridge her undergraduate and graduate degrees by potentially pursuing a Ph.D. in epidemiology and public health.
Clearly, this year’s PHEFA interns and fellows are creatively pinpointing the unique, crucial ways in which entomological public health research can help bolster and supplement their pre-existing knowledge and expertise, while also identifying where their specific skills can advance the field. Their varied academic and professional backgrounds have helped shape both the program and essential public health research in lasting ways.
Entomological Society of America