Examining the Ecology & Sociology Behind the Urban Mosquito

August 12, 2013
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Sophie Jin
Sophie gives a tour of the lab she worked in this summer.


“Hey kid! Do you like science?”


Right after he replied, the boy returned to tending his bean plant along his window still. A few moments later, he pointed to our caddies full of bottles of filthy water, turkey basters, and siphons, asking us to explain what we were up to.

As a SESYNC intern, I am spending my summer with Dr. Leisnham’s lab at the University of Maryland College Park, helping a project studying urban mosquito vectors and their social and ecological factors.

Baltimore holds a diverse population of people, with neighborhoods that sit on both ends of the spectrum in terms of income and education. Low-income neighborhoods are marked by trash and dilapidated buildings. They often host unkempt containers and tires, which collect standing water: ideal conditions for mosquito larvae. High-income neighborhoods display fountains, fish ponds, and empty trash cans turned over and tucked away. Through social and ecological research methods, the project hopes to better understand how the different environmental and social structures of Baltimore’s neighborhoods contribute to its mosquito population.

Mosquitoes may only be a nuisance to many Baltimore residents. But as the city acts as an international hub, it risks introduction to new and foreign diseases. Epidemics such as Malaria, Dengue fever, and West Nile virus show the importance of keeping mosquitoes under control as they are excellent vectors for disease, making mosquitoes a significant human health concern.

The research project requires extensive field work in the Baltimore community surveying residents, trapping mosquitoes, and collecting water from potential breeding areas. Some days we may carry large white cylindrical mosquito traps and coolers of smoking dry ice (which releases CO2, a mosquito attractant). Other days we may carry caddies while siphoning water samples of mosquito larvae into bottles. We certainly present a curious sight and naturally, people ask questions.

Communicating our work in the neighborhoods of Baltimore resulted in varying responses, from an appreciative “Thank you for your work” to a dismissive door shut. Amidst the mixed reactions, it is uplifting to see community members, such as the boy who claims to “dislike” science, show interest in what we are doing and hopefully learn that there is more to the urban mosquito than an itchy bump.

Trash collects in an alley in Union Park, Baltimore. Trash and tires can hold water and host mosquito larvae.


LaDeau SL, Leisnham PT, Biehler D, Bodner D. Higher Mosquito Production in Low-Income Neighborhoods of Baltimore and Washington, DC: Understanding Ecological Drivers and Mosquito-Borne Disease Risk in Temperate Cities. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2013; 10(4):1505–1526.

About this blog:

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC)’s Internship Program provides undergraduate students with opportunities to deepen their understanding of socio-environmental issues. Interns spend the majority of their time working with mentors at their offices or labs on research projects, and participate in weekly Internship Program events, including field trips and seminars. These events include trips to SESYNC facilities in Annapolis, where interns are introduced to the socio-environmental synthesis research approach.

Above, we highlight the summer research experience of one of our interns, Sophie Jin.

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