Fighting Nature, with Nature

By Danniel Arriaga

Don’t you get bothered by mosquitoes and other bugs crawling around on your legs and food when you’re outside enjoying nature? Isn’t all the repellent you have to use to keep them away even more bothersome, and to know that it’s all synthetic?

This may sound like the start of an infomercial, but it’s not.

I spoke with Jeremy Dow, a junior studying biology at Liberty University in Virginia and an intern with the George Washington Carver (GWC) Internship Program. Dow is working under the mentorship of distinguished professor Joel Coats and assistant-research graduate Aaron Gross in the entomology department, searching for a better natural alternative for insect repellent.

The GWC invites students 16 years or older to come and experience life on campus at Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Students conduct research on a topic that their mentor is already working on or a brand new topic the mentor has chosen. Students reside on campus for eight weeks and undergo educational tours of the sponsors of the GWC.

“I’m working on mosquito repellents and testing the effects of natural oils on mosquitoes and their behavior. We’re testing three different oils-patchouli oil, citronella oil and cedar wood oil,” said Jeremy.

Dow also is working with three species of mosquito, all capable of carrying a disease (West Nile mosquito, African malaria mosquito and the yellow fever mosquito). He explained that they place the mosquitoes in an enclosed space where one side has had the repellent applied and the other hasn’t. They study the reactions of the mosquitoes. Do they move away and avoid the repellent? If so, the repellent is working.

Their main focus is to find an alternative to synthetic oils used today in our insect repellents. Citronella oil is a natural alternative, however studies show it does not work very well. Although the concept that certain oils in plants can repel insects naturally has inspired the researchers to expand on that concept.

Dow told me that everyone is affected by this work and should care. For some it may be the key for having an enjoyable time out at the park or down by the lake. For others it could be the key for avoiding a viral disease, like yellow fever. Finding a natural alternative to spraying chemicals in the air affects and helps everyone.

A person’s interest in a career can come and go at any time, but Dow’s has stayed with him and seems like it will live on for a while.

“During my freshmen year of college, I went overseas to Eastern Europe on a humanitarian project to build greenhouses. It made me notice that agricultural issues are growing around the world, and I wanted to be a part of finding a solution to the problems,” he said.

Dow is just one of the students that the GWC has brought here to come and experience life on campus at Iowa State University, as well as conduct some new and interesting research. For more information regarding the GWC, visit http://www.ag.iastate.edu/diversity/gwc/.

Danniel Arriaga, a student at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, is spending the summer as part of the George Washington Carver Internship and is also part of the program, Science Bound. He is an intern in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Communications Office, writing news stories about the other GWC interns.