November 17, 2022
We spoke with James Mann, a 5th-year Ph.D. Candidate in Biology, about his research and work in mosquito biology at Baylor. He shared with us about the opportunities in research that Baylor has presented him, as well as his love for living out his Christian identity in science among his fellow students and faculty. Read more about James' time here at Baylor.
Why did you choose to attend Baylor for Graduate School?
Christian Leadership & Renown institution for faith-based learning. I love that my Christian identity is supported here, and that fellow students and researchers also share that faith.
What are your research interests?
Medical Entomology. My research here at Baylor in the Arthropod Sensory Biology & Neuroethology Lab focuses directly on the biggest challenge disease-wise that society faces. This being the diseases transmitted by mosquitoes which are known to be the deadliest vectors of disease. More people die from mosquito-borne illnesses each year than any other cause. My research tries to improve our ability to combat mosquito-borne illnesses by increasing our understanding of mosquito biology. My research first looks into host associations or what Animals Mosquitoes may be feeding on. Mosquitoes feed on a diverse range of hosts which have different abilities to act as "amplifiers" for these diseases or pathogens. By understanding these host associations we can better tailor control strategy.
Next, my research focus & interest is species presence. Specifically, what Mosquito species are found in regions, be it Urban or Suburban or Dallas or Waco. Did you know that there are approximately 89 species found here in Texas, with a further 200 across North America? The Sensory Biology and Neuroethology Lab is actively updating and cataloging the diverse species you can find at the county level throughout Texas. Through this, we've found Aedes Japonicus and solidified a new record!
Lastly, we focus on Fieldable Viral Surveillance. How can we more efficiently detect viruses outside of the lab environment? Well, the Sensory Biology & Neuroethology lab is simulating bringing the lab to the outside environment. We develop novel methods for viral and pathogen identification which could be used for surveillance. The trick for our group is though that we seek to find things easily affordable, portable, and highly accurate!
What opportunities or implications stem from your research?
Opportunity 1: Future Employment
I have had many opportunities stem from my research. I'm a big advocate of the Vice-Provost's mission to extend the collaboration between the United States Army and Baylor University. Through close work with Stacey Smith and Todd Buchs I have met many amazing Medical Officers and have had the chance to directly further the mission through presentations at Military Healthcare. This opportunity led me directly to being considered and selected as a Medical Entomologist for the United States Army.
Opportunity 2 & Implication 1: Collaboration to find Invasive Species with Army & Baylor and other Entomologists
Through the Graduate School Travel Award, I have had the opportunity to attend many conferences that otherwise would not have been possible. With the award, I was able to network with both Retired and Active Duty Army Entomologists and participate in Statewide collaborative efforts to elucidate the presence of invasive Mosquito species. One of our projects had us searching through the biggest Army Depot in Texas and through more than 15,000 acres of surplus military machinery for mosquitoes smaller than a Quarter!
Through the opportunities given by the Graduate School, we were able to identify the first occurrence of Aedes japonicus an invasive and deadly Mosquito here in Texas. The discovery has direct implications for disease transmission and has led to further state-level surveys for the species outside of the depot and local area.
Opportunity 3 & Implication 2: Vectorborne Disease
Vectorborne disease represents the biggest struggle for soldiers on deployment. It is the number one cause of non-battle injury or "sick soldiers" outside of combat. In the Twenty-First Century, the United States is moving away from Counter Insurgency (COIN) and focusing on future battles between adversaries of similar technological prowess (Near Peer). The shift from asymmetric warfare to a focus in which both sides have equal footing leads to issues where our Soldiers may not always have access to medical supplies or sufficient medical treatment.
My research here at Baylor focuses on Medical Entomology and delivers potential fielded detection methods for the biggest cause of vectorborne disease. We work on developing fieldable test strips which Soldiers or Aid Workers could carry. Ultimately, we were able to demonstrate a fielded assay, as well as demonstrate that we could detect several important Mosquito-borne viruses. Our research led to direct implications for Mosquito Surveillance, but given the shift in Military focus could aid in future Military endeavors if validated.
What research excites you right now?
Developing fieldable test strips. This platform has big implications for disease surveillance. We recently published a python tool in BMC Bioinformatics allowing anyone to upload genomic datasets and make test kits for viruses or pathogens of their choosing. This means that anyone can now get into the CRISPR-Cas12 diagnostic field without major setbacks or hurdles. I'm excited to see what people are going to do with this platform!
How does Baylor help you achieve your research?
How Baylor Helps: Vice Provost's Office
Baylor does a tremendous job supporting its graduate students. I’m a big advocate of the Vice-Provosts mission to extend collaboration between The United States Army and Baylor University. Through this collaboration and through working closely with Stacey and Todd Buchs I have had the chance to further Baylor's Mission and present my research at premier Military Research Conferences including the Military Healthcare System Research Symposium (MHSRS). This opportunity led me to securing a job with the best trained Medical Entomologists in the world.
How Baylor Helps: Graduate School Travel Award & Networking
Through the Graduate School, I have had the opportunity to attend several conferences using the Travel Award. This award has led to direct collaborations with many amazing researchers. Without their support, several components of my research would be missing.
How Baylor Helps: Faith & Research
As a Catholic, I take strength from my faith. Baylor helps me achieve my research by supporting my spiritual development and needs. Here on campus, we have a local Catholic Center supported by the University. I often visit to reflect on my research and pray for guidance. Being able to keep my Christian identity and being surrounded by like-minded individuals has significantly impacted my research.
How Baylor Helps: New Faculty Start-up Funds
My research in large part has been supported by the Start-Up funding to Jason Pitts and the Arthropod Sensory Biology and Neuroethology Lab. These generous funds have led to many successful projects and the generation of preliminary data to go after several grants.
If you are working on a thesis or dissertation, briefly describe your topic.
Dissertation Title: "Developing a fieldable viral detection toolkit and identifying invasive species and bloodmeal preference in Texas mosquitoes."
My dissertation focuses on furthering our understanding of mosquito biology by looking at host associations, as well as what species are in particular areas. Lastly, we also work on developing fieldable viral detection toolkits. Ultimately, these all synergistically work together to further our ability for mosquito viral surveillance.
What grants/awards (if any) have you received for your research while at Baylor?
Graduate School Travel Award - $400 x3 (Several Years)
American Mosquito Control Association - $1000 - 20'
American Mosquito Control Association - $1000 - 21'
1st Place PhD Oral Talk - Entomological Society of America Southwest Branch - April 22 - $200
1st Place PhD Oral Talk - Texas Mosquito Control Association - Dec 21 - $1000
List any publications you might like to feature.