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One Undergraduate Focuses on Malaria Research

ND Staff • DATE: April 23, 2019

What would a world without diseases transmitted by mosquitoes look like like? That's something Cara Ravasio, a junior in the Department of Electrical Engineering, is hoping to find out.

Mosquitoes have contributed to more deaths than all the world wars combined. Malaria alone, a mosquito-borne disease, kills more than 600,000 people each year. Ravasio is working with Professor Scott Howard to determine how electronic signals might disable disease-carrying mosquitoes.

All engineering undergraduates have the option to get involved in research. Ravasio saw this project 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 consideration, she decided on malaria prevention, which begins with mosquito control, as a focus for her work. For mosquito control to be most effective globally, control methods need to be low-cost, low-energy, and most importantly, attainable. Mosquito netting is inexpensive, requires no power, and is easily attainable. However, it is not an effective control method for large areas. Chemical options, if attainable in developing countries, pollute the environment and add another element of health concern. Other electronic methods are currently being tested; unfortunately, those methods typically require too much power to be utilized in developing countries. Ravasio is hopeful that photoacoustics may offer a low-cost, low-power, sustainable, and attainable option for disease control.

She recently completed a feasibility study which indicated this research was indeed viable. “It’s common to see undergraduate students getting involved in existing projects or working on something professors and graduate students were already thinking about, but Cara initiated and is driving this project on her own. That is unique and exciting to see,” said Howard.

Ravasio has been digging into 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. She found that mosquito wings resonate at a low frequency, making them easier to disable. She has also learned that 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, Ravasio has found that by using photoacoustic techniques, she can disable the wings of these species while other insects are unharmed by these techniques.

She is currently examining the intricate details of Aedes aegypti and anopheles wings to gain a better understanding of chitin (the material of which the wings are made), to measure and analyze the acoustic waves within the chitin and to detail how the wings absorb light.

Ravasio will soon begin working to develop electric wing-disabling solutions that are cost and energy efficient. A solution that uses very little power is not only optimal in this case but essential, as the goal is to create a technology than can easily be used in developing countries, where power sources are hard to come by but disease is not.