Fighting the bite - a battle between female mosquitoes and women in STEM

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1. Project summary (maximum 150 words)

You may have had Ross River virus, or know someone that has, because it is Australia's most common mosquito-borne disease. Although it is a significant public health concern here in Queensland, we don't have a good understanding of how it is transmitted. More than 30 species of mosquito can transmit Ross River virus, but they have to pick it up from an infected animal, before biting a human. At the moment, we don't know which animals are most important.

This project is the first of it's kind, and has brought together experts from veterinary medicine, public health and entomology to sample more than 700 animals, and count over 70,000 mosquitoes to look more closely at the transmission of Ross River virus.

This research is critical because it prepares us to fight new and emerging mosquito-borne diseases which can cause mass outbreaks, as seen with Zika in the Americas.

2. How does your project benefit Queensland? (maximum 500 words)

This project is highly beneficial in Queensland because:

  • It addresses a central unresolved issue of Queenslands most common mosquito-borne disease.
  • It is the first to undertake surveillance of potential animal hosts through a network of veterinary clinics.
  • It works directly with local city councils to target public health concerns for mosquito-borne diseases in Queensland.
  • It increases an awareness, understanding and participation among the wider community for research in Queensland.
  • It provides a critical framework in Queensland to manage future outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases.

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Originally isolated near the Ross River in Northern Queensland, Ross River virus has a substantial economic and public health burden here in Queensland. In fact, although the virus occurs in every state and territory of Australia, the majority of human notifications originate from South-East Queensland. More than that, residents in the capital city of Queensland, Brisbane, continually represent a high proportion of these cases. In 2015, Brisbane experienced the largest outbreak of Ross River virus on record, more than doubling the annual notifications.

At the moment there is no treatment or vaccine available for Ross River virus, and the best means of prevention is by stopping a mosquito bite. The largest economic costs associated with this diseases are for diagnosis (which exceeds more than AU$10 million a year), and the loss of income or profit when people are unable to work. Whilst the availability and affordability of safe drug interventions are important for mosquito-borne diseases, treating humans alone is limited in its capacity to disrupt the transmission of Ross River virus.

The virus has a complicated transmission cycle which involves multiple mosquito vectors and animal hosts. A mosquito must bite an infected animal before it bites a human. The unique climatic range and habitat diversity in Queensland means that the state houses some of the most important mosquito species for Ross River virus and a diversity of potential animal hosts.

This research is the first in Queensland to bring together veterinary hospitals to test more than 700 animals from 35 species for Ross River virus, whilst also working with Brisbane City Council to count and identify mosquitoes and animals across areas of high and low disease. The outcomes of this research are used to model and map areas with the highest risk of Ross River virus in Brisbane to identify appropriate management strategies and prevent further infections.

Lastly, given the popularity of Queensland among tourists and the favourable climate for other tropical diseases, this research is important because it paves the way for preventing outbreaks of new or emerging diseases in Queensland.

3. What STEM promotion/engagement activities do you do/have you done? (maximum 500 words)

I have always been passionate about promoting STEM locally and internationally, and since starting my PhD three years ago I have sought opportunities to engage public and scientific communities in the following ways:

At schools:

  • Presenter at Aspiring Women in Science Conference: This conference brings together girls from around the state to learn about different career paths in STEM.
  • I have also presented as a guest speaker to final year Biology students (St Aidans' AGS, Cavendish Road State High School) to promote STEM.

Community engagement and presentations:

  • Graduate Women, Gold Coast: I was the guest speaker on World Environment Day and was awarded a grant from this local community group which raises money to support research and women in STEM. This grant was used to support sample collection from not-for-profit veterinary hospitals and to further care for Queensland wildlife.
  • Invited speaker, Queensland Naturalists' Club.

Local news and radio:

  • Wrote a first authored article in The Conversation, a journalist website for science accessible to the wider community, which has been read almost 5000 times.
  • ABC Gold Coast Radio interview (22/01/2019)
  • Article in Queensland Country Life

Online outreach:

  • Twitter (@elle_stephenson): I regularly sketch key STEM messages from conferences that I attend (both locally and internationally) and post them on Twitter. My page is visited more than 15,000 times a month with my single most popular tweet reaching more than 28,000 people.
  • I have regularly contributed to the Griffith Wildlife Disease Ecology blog, keeping people updated on the project.

Publications

Stephenson, E.,et al. (2018) The non-human reservoirs of Ross River virus: a systematic review of the evidence. Parasites and Vectors. 11(1), 188.

Lau, C....Stephenson, E.,et al. (2018) Leptospirosis – an important zoonoses acquired in work, play and travel. The Australian Journal of General Practice. 40(3): 105-110

Stephenson, E.,et al. (2018) Interpreting mosquito feeding patterns in Australia through an ecological lens; an analysis of blood meal studies. Parasites and Vectors. Accepted.

Stephenson, E.,et al,(2019) A systematic review of human seroprevalence for Dengue, Ross River, and Barmah Forest viruses in Australia and the Pacific. PLoS NTD. Under Review.

Lee, W-S.... Stephenson, E.,et al. (2018) Mosquito antiviral defense mechanisms: a delicate balance between innate immunity and persistent viral infection. Parasites and Vectors. Accepted.

Herrero, M.,...Stephenson, E.,et al. (2017). Farming and the geography of nutrient production for human use: a transdisciplinary analysis. The Lancet Planetary Health, 1(1).

Henderson, B...Stephenson, E.,et al. (2015) Closing system-wide yield gaps to increase food supply and mitigate GHGs among mixed crop-livestock smallholders in Sub-Saharan Africa. Agricultural Systems,

Conference presentations

2018

  • Ecological Society of Australia Conference
  • Mosquito Control Association of Australia (2 x presentations)
  • Australian Society of Microbiology
  • Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases

2017

  • Wildlife Disease Association Australiasia (2 x presentations)

2016

  • One Health EcoHealth 
  • Mosquito Control Association of Australia

Awards

2018

  • Dr. E.N. Marks Award for Best Student Presentation
  • Ecological Society of Australia, Student Research Award 
  • Best Presentation, Environmental Futures Research Institute

2017

  • Future Fellowship Inc. Graduate Women Gold Coast 

2016

  • Dr. E.N. Marks Award for Best Student Presentation
  • Environmental Futures Research Institute Conference Support Award

Committees

2018

  • Mosquito Control Association of Australia Conference, Student Sub-Committee
  • Environmental Futures Research Institute PhD Representative

2017

  • PhD Representative, Griffith University Academic Committee
  • Environmental Futures Research Institute PhD Representative
  • Committee member on the Financial Sub-Committee for Wildlife Health Australia 

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My PhD research focusses on better understanding the epidemiology of Ross River virus by investigating the ecology of wild animal reservoirs and their role in the amplification of the disease. Ross...

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