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Fighting the Bite

A UVM engineering professor investigates Africa’s most dreaded disease: malaria

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With any luck, Arne Bomblies will get a chance to settle into his University of Vermont office one of these days. But there’s nothing like tracking a killer to keep a scholar moving.

At first glance, Bomblies seems like an unlikely person to be conducting research on malaria, an illness that kills more than a million people worldwide each year, most of them African children, at a rate of one every 30 seconds. Bomblies, an assistant professor in UVM’s College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, has degrees in hydrology and chemical, civil and environmental engineering — hardly the credentials one would expect for fighting infectious diseases.

But, as anyone familiar with malaria knows, experts have been aware of the links between water and mosquitoes, and hence water and malaria, for decades. What’s been more difficult to figure out are the most effective ways to interrupt the life cycles of the mosquitoes and parasites that cause this deadly scourge.

Bomblies, who was hired at UVM a year ago, has been applying his understanding of hydrology — the science of how water forms, accumulates and behaves in the environment — to building computer models that do just that. He’s using the burgeoning science of complex systems to figure out how changing the variables in the African environment can affect the ebb and flow of a devastating illness.

Bomblies, 35, grew up in Castle Rock, Colo., but was born in Germany, the son of a Dutch mother and German father. His mother was a high school teacher of foreign languages, his father a civil engineer who worked on aid projects all over the globe. That work included surveying jobs for road construction in Africa, where Bomblies would often visit remote project sites. Bomblies eventually picked up five different languages.

His corner office at UVM, on the second floor of the Votey Engineering Building, hints that he hasn’t been on the Burlington campus long. Compared with the well-nested environs of tenured professors, with their bookshelves crammed with weighty tomes and bulletin boards plastered with pithy quotes and apropos “Far Side” cartoons, Bomblies’ office is sparse. With its half-empty shelves, haphazard stacks of papers and steady hum of a nearby generator, the room feels more like a last-minute assignment, something the janitor cleaned out for the professor over a long weekend.

But Bomblies’ work space isn’t without its personal touches. On one wall hangs a photo of him standing in a group of smiling villagers in the African nation of Niger. While he was working on his PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Bomblies’ advisor piqued his curiosity about the field of public health.

“Initially, I was a little resistant to it, because it meant I had to learn a whole lot more biology,” Bomblies admits. “But when I looked more and more into the possibilities, it became clear how fascinating [it was], and how much potential there was for overlap between environmental engineering and public health.”

Once bitten by the infectious-disease bug, as it were, Bomblies threw himself into it wholeheartedly. By the time he completed his PhD, he’d spent 13 months living in southwestern Niger, a sub-Saharan region with a well-defined rainy season from June through August. There he gathered reams of data to try to show links between the severity of the monsoons and the seasonal outbreaks of malaria. Specifically, he created complex computer models of how mosquito breeding pools form and respond to changing weather events. Using these precise tools, Bomblies discovered that the causal connections among rainfall, mosquito proliferation and malaria aren’t as simple or cut-and-dried as one might assume.

Although large swaths of Africa are rife with malaria, Bomblies explains, the disease is transmitted by a parasite in the mosquito that occupies a unique niche and reproduces only under specific environmental parameters. The main goal of his research is to determine the sensitivity of the mosquito and the parasite to various changes in those parameters.

For example, what happens when you alter the topography of a village and its environs? Or when you plant new vegetation that alters the formation of breeding pools? On a larger scale, what impact does global climate change have on ambient temperature, and thus the time it takes for malarial parasites to reproduce inside the mosquitoes’ bodies? By gathering such data, Bomblies has set out to build models that will eventually predict seasonal fluctuations in the mosquito population and their likely impact on malaria outbreaks.

Much of his work involves traveling to African villages during the rainy season, where he and his grad student assistant, Jody Stryker, collect meteorological information — temperature, precipitation, humidity and so on — as well as data on the types of soil and vegetation indigenous to the region. Those data are logged using a GPS unit and later entered in a computer.

But Bomblies also has to gather the malaria-carrying mosquitoes themselves. To do so, he and Stryker set up “light traps” — small insect-gathering devices about the size of a camping lantern that attract mosquitoes with a small lightbulb and capture them with a fan and mesh net. The traps, which run on six-volt motorcycle batteries, are hung inside villagers’ huts or wherever humans sleep. Unlike North American mosquitoes, which are inclined to nibble on animals, African mosquitoes have a voracious appetite for human blood, and they typically bite at night while people are asleep.

Bomblies’ work gives him constant firsthand reminders of the devastating effects malaria has on the villages where he does his research. “I’ve seen children from one visit to the next just gone, dead,” he says. “Older people get malaria as well, but they have a more natural built-up immunity … It’s the kids who are really suffering.”

Malaria eradication isn’t a new research focus for scientists worldwide, but Bomblies notes that his predecessors lacked the computational power necessary to build accurate and predictive models of these complex systems. Moreover, much of the past research was based on regional climate data, which operate on a scale of hundreds of miles. In contrast, Bomblies is building computational models that focus to a sharp point — that of an individual village itself.

Of course, such models cannot be built overnight. So far, Bomblies has collected one year’s worth of data in Ethiopia, not nearly enough to create an accurately predictive model — or publishable results. Ideally, his research, which is currently funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, will be ongoing for at least a decade.

It’s a good sign that Bomblies has already attracted international attention. In September 2007, his work was featured in Seed magazine’s Revolutionary Minds series, which recognized the work of “revolutionary thinkers whose global research has the potential to effect worldwide change.”

By necessity, Bomblies is in it for the long haul. As the African continent is further affected by global warming, that too will factor into his models.

“We’re going through a period of rapid climate change that is noticeable in the East African highlands,” Bomblies says. “What I’d like to do is have a solid record of what’s happening there.”

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