Opening up mosquito research labs to the community

By bringing people close to disease-spreading insects, might we improve public health?

Because they spread malaria, Zika, West Nile, dengue, yellow fever and other diseases, mosquitoes are responsible for more human deaths than any other organism. Some of these diseases flourish in tropical regions like sub-Saharan Africa that are urbanizing rapidly and feeling the effects of climate change. Research indicates that temperature increases lead to mosquitoes breeding more frequently, living longer and biting more often.

Meanwhile, advances in scientific research are leading to new approaches to mosquito control. These include genetic modification of male mosquitoes, leading to sterile offspring. Scientists are also exploring the use of bacteria such as Wolbachia to limit the ability of mosquitoes to spread disease.

Mosquito research facilities are often cloaked in secrecy which breeds distrust among the public. Aomboon / Shutterstock.com
But mosquito research faces one enormous challenge: a lack of community engagement around this science leads to the public feeling anxiety and mistrust. Negative public opinion has the potential to derail this research and associated efforts, such as release of genetically modified mosquitoes in cities. My colleague John Bauer, assistant dean for the UC San Diego Division of Biological Sciences, noted to me that scientists work in high security buildings that the public are banned from entering and then wonder why they are so misunderstood.

I am a professor of architecture at the University of Oregon and am involved in an effort to re-imagine these mosquito research facilities and make them accessible to the public. In an effort to do so we have convened teams of designers, artists and scientists to rethink the design of mosquito research sites so that they include spaces of community engagement.

Making genetic research transparent

I have long worked at the intersection of people and the environment. I am now working together with artist Michael Singer, Mark Benedict of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Entomology Branch, Fredros Okumu from Tanzania-based Ikafara Health Institute (IHI), and scholars and scientists from the U.K. and U.S., on the “Protective Atmospheres” project to redesign these facilities.

This has the potential to be a game-changing effort. Our hope is that opening up the facility will lead to greater acceptance of this work and lead to better health outcomes. My collaborators and I are not aware of any similar effort meant to integrate research facilities and the community in order to make science approachable.

This is where effective design comes in.