Georgetown student maps mosquitoes for NASA/UT summer internship program

Williamson County

WILLIAMSON COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — There’s been a buzzing in Hailey Marbibi’s ears for the past two months. Nothing much else has bugged her lately except what she’s seen under a microscope.

NASA selected the local Georgetown high school student to map and study mosquitoes during a summer internship at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Absolutely amazed. I was so grateful… [It’s been] a really great experience. Getting to do real-world science has been absolutely incredible and getting to immerse yourself in the process and really working through something you’re passionate about has been amazing,” Marbibi said.

She will present her project findings later Thursday and Friday. The experience is part of NASA’s Student Enhancement in Earth and Space Science program at UT’s center for space research. NASA scientists trained her and 100 other students as “mosquito mappers.” GLOBE Observer scientist Dr. Russanne Low lead the program.

They covered:

  • Land cover classification
  • Larva identification
  • Mosquito ecology and habitat
  • Safety procedures
  • Satellite data analysis

The class size grew this year due to virtual learning. Marbibi and the roughly 450 interns devoted 10-15 hours a week during the months of June and July for the program, studying topics such as designing Mars habitats, exploring lunar environments, tracing COVID-19 using NASA technologies and examining the relationship of observed mosquito habitats to land cover and environmental data obtained from satellites. People can learn more about the SEES high school summer internship program on its website.

The study

Marbibi participated in weekly data explorations using the GLOBE Observer citizen science app along with a microscope that clips onto her cellphone. When she correctly identifies a mosquito, she reports where she found it, noting observations of temperature, water and vegetation.

“We went and we took pictures. We got the data for that area, whether it be impervious surfaces: buildings, grass, trees — you name it, it was logged. And then for my project, I actually made mosquito traps, in [numbered] order, and collected aquatic fauna whether it be rooted plants, algae and decomposing sediment to study how mosquitoes liked them,” Marbibi said. “[The traps were conducive to] where they wanna lay their eggs and it’s where we watched larvae develop to kind of see what effect that had on it.”

Her favorite parts were the biology, something she didn’t quite master in school, and the process.

Marbibi observes mosquito larvae under a microscope (KXAN Photo/Todd Bailey)

“I’ve never been great at life sciences and kinda getting to take a deeper look into that, not necessarily on an academic level but on a field level, and getting to get down and dirty and work,” Marbibi said. “You’re thinking through your process. I always think about it like it’s one step forward but two steps back. You might be in the moment but you’re thinking ahead and you’re thinking about the past and trying to put it all together to put it towards your study. And that’s been amazing.”

Why map mosquitoes?

Mosquitoes cause millions of cases of diseases in humans every year, the SEES program mentioned in a news release.

Marbibi’s project focused on vector-borne diseases and how we can prevent them. She looked at how much mosquitoes enjoyed decomposing bacteria and how it affected the population of larvae in her trap. She observed that to see how we may use cultured bacteria as an option to control population size and possibly use it as an option to remove diseases, like malaria, from the larvae. Researchers hope to understand their migratory patterns and breeding habitat. Seasonal habitat monitoring can provide early warning of potential disease outbreaks, like the West Nile Virus, which has been found in both Travis and Williamson Counties this year. Austin Public Health identified the first ‘probable human case’ of the virus in Travis County Wednesday.

That’s why this data is so important. It can support scientists forecasting a community’s risk of mosquito-borne disease.

Public participation

Anyone interested in helping the cause can download and use the free GLOBE Observer mobile app. The United States is one of the 123 participating countries that can make observations and contribute data. What the public provides adds data for future student research projects. People can learn more about the app on its website.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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