EE in Malaria Research

Author: Leslie Lestinsky

Ravasio Mosquito

What would a world without diseases transmitted by mosquitoes be like? Mosquitoes have contributed to more deaths than all the world wars combined. Department of Electrical Engineering (NDEE) junior Cara Ravasio is working with NDEE Professor Scott Howard to research how electronic signals might disable disease-carrying mosquitoes.

NDEE undergraduates have the opportunity to get involved in research. Ravasio saw it as an opportunity she didn’t want to pass up. “I knew I wanted to do something to help the world, specifically in developing countries,” said Ravasio. After careful research and consideration, she landed on malaria prevention as the driving force behind her research. “It’s common to see undergraduate students working on existing projects or working on something professors and graduate students were already thinking about. Cara initiated and is driving this research on her own. That is unique and exciting to see,” said Howard. Ravasio recently completed a feasibility study which came back with positive results, showing that this research is indeed feasible. 

Ravasio has been digging in to how she might be able to harness photoacoustics–the absorption of light resulting in an acoustic wave–to achieve resonant frequency of oscillating mosquito wings, thus disabling them. The phenomenon of resonant frequency requires only a small amount of energy input to achieve a large response from the resonating system–in this case, mosquito wings. Ravasio has found that mosquito wings not only resonate at a low frequency, making them that much easier to disable but also the resonant frequency of oscillating mosquito wings is specific to each species and sex. Being that there are only two species–Aedes aegypti and anopheles–of female mosquitoes that bite and transmit disease, she has learned that by using photoacoustic techniques, she can disable only the wings of this particular group of mosquitoes. This will allow for other insects to go unharmed while using photoacoustic techniques.

For mosquito control to be effective in developing countries, control methods need to be low-cost, low-energy, and most importantly, attainable. Mosquito netting is inexpensive, requires no power and is attainable, but is not an effective control method that can cover a substantial area. Chemical options, if attainable in developing countries, pollute the environment and add another element of health concern. Other electronic methods are currently being experimented with, however they typically require too much power to be utilized by developing countries. Ravasio is hopeful that photoacoustics may offer a low-cost, low-power, sustainable and attainable option for disease control.

She is now researching the intricate details of Anopheles aegypti and anopheles species’ wings. Such as, how they absorb light, getting a better understanding of chitin (the material the wings are made of) and measuring and analyzing acoustic waves within chitin. Next, she will begin working on engineering electric wing-disabling solutions that are cost and energy efficient. A solution that uses very little power is not only optimal but essential, in order to serve those in areas where power sources are hard to come by, but disease is not.