Szabolcs Márka of Columbia University (USA) is using his expertise in optics to target the common mosquito.
Márka, an experimental physicist, has previous experience using data analysis and diagnostics to enhance the reach of a laser to detect cosmic gravitational waves. He has created a "light shield" that throws off the insects' ability to navigate and locate humans through light and heat.
"Fundamental science astrophysics, relativity, gravity is like art," says Márka, associate physics professor. Throughout his time studying physics as a PhD student at Vanderbilt University and then a post-doc at California Institute of Technology, he pondered a way to apply his knowledge to help people. "I wanted to do something that improves the lives of people and is important for humanity right now," he says.
After Márka studied the risk of malaria, which accounts for 20% of childhood deaths in Africa, he became interested in studying mosquitoes' sensory perception with his research partners from Columbia University, Zsuzsa Márka and Imre Bartos. The researchers plan to create a light-barrier device that can be placed anywhere mosquitoes may be located. "You can put light curtains in the home, in doors, around the bed, in open windows," Márka says. "Light is very easy to manipulate and shape to many geometries with optics. This could have applications that will save lives."
The project is funded by a $1 million Grand Challenges and Explorations grant awarded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is committed to putting an end to malaria. This is the second grant Márka was awarded by the foundation, after receiving an initial $100,000 in 2008.
An experiment proved to be effective after Márka used the infrared light ray in a test chamber. Mosquitoes flew toward the light barrier, but upon reaching it, turned around and flew the opposite way.
"The mosquitoes are probably scared," Márka says. "They could go through the light barrier without getting hurt, but they don't. That's the beauty of it because you don't have to necessarily kill them. You just make them go away."
A prototype could be several years away as Márka's team continues to study the effects of intensity, shape, and color on mosquito behavior.
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