Most newly minted college graduates seek a first step on a career path that will generate a lot of buzz. But Rachel Bales (’18, Marine Science) decided while still enrolled at Florida Gulf Coast University to embark upon a path intended to help lessen buzz – specifically the buzz of mosquitoes plaguing Southwest Florida.
Now a biologist in the Collier Mosquito Control District’s research department, Bales tests innovative strategies to decrease a burgeoning population of the blood-sucking, disease-spreading insects through natural means such as breeding larvae-eating fish and eradicating aquatic weeds that provide mosquito habitat. An internship with the district served as the springboard for her career.
“I have always loved science and being outdoors. I believe all my natural sciences summer camps fostered that interest and enthusiasm,” Bales said, pointing to childhood activities at a snorkel camp in the Florida Keys and a junior park ranger camp, both providing early introductions to swarms of mosquitoes. “These experiences drove me to pursue a degree in marine science. Somehow after all these years, those pestiferous mosquitoes were still buzzing in the back of my head and, when the opportunity to work at Collier Mosquito Control District arose, I pounced.”
Bales credits a University Colloquium class at FGCU with helping determine her career trajectory. “Toward the conclusion of the semester, my instructor approached me with the internship position. She told me it was in Naples, which is close to me, and that she thought I really would enjoy the opportunity. I remember looking at the job description and getting excited because there was a mix of duties – field work, lab work, data analysis, even helicopter rides! She also wrote a letter of recommendation, and I got a call back four hours after my interview,” she said.
That was in summer 2016, when the mosquito-transmitted Zika virus was constantly in the headlines. During her internship, Bales conducted surveillance studies designed to locate populations of Aedes aegypti (the species primarily responsible for spreading Zika virus). At the summer’s end, she received an invitation to remain with the district as an undergraduate research intern for the remainder of her FGCU studies.
Through that ongoing research opportunity, she also landed a summer internship in 2017 with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Southeastern Center of Excellence in Vector Borne Diseases, based in the Center for Medical, Agricultural and Veterinary Entomology in Gainesville. There, she successfully genotyped four populations of the Aedes species in a project illustrating that this mosquito type is highly resistant to a common insecticide.
After graduating in December 2018, Bales slid seamlessly into a full-time gig as a professional biologist for the district.
“I enjoy my position because I am able to perform a variety of duties. Each day is a new thing,” she said. In addition to conducting surveillance of species that spread Zika, West Nile and other viruses, she also tests local mosquito populations for resistance to certain pesticides and assists in aircraft spray system calibrations to determine the proper amounts of insecticides necessary to combat mosquitos.
Bales said she is most proud of her work on the district’s mosquitofish program, which uses a relative of the guppy that is a natural mosquito predator to reduce populations of the insect.
“I started this program three years ago with a 300-gallon pond generously gifted to us by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Now we have a two-tank system, 800-gallons each. I collect eastern mosquitofish and breed them as a biologic control for mosquito larvae. Weekly, residents will come to the district to pick up fish, for free, to place in their flooded yards, ditches, rain collection barrels, livestock troughs and small ponds. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, we adapted to a curbside fish pickup to minimize exposure. We gave out more than 4,000 fish to our residents this past year.”
In her latest project, Bales performed surveillance on the Mansonia species of mosquito, a population associated with invasive, floating weeds.
“The goal of the projects was to identify if Mansonia are closely emerging from aquatic weed habitats in our district, which they are, and to explore the scope of incorporating an aquatic weed control department, but only in association with mosquitoes,” she said.
Bales shares data with the district’s operations department and suggests areas of aquatic weeds that need to be treated with larvicide.
Because mosquito control is a specific field of expertise, the district invests heavily in interns every summer in hopes that some of them will enter the industry, said Keira Lucas, director of research and Bales’ supervisor. Interns gain exposure to the principles of integrated mosquito management, mosquito trapping and surveillance, mosquito biology, insect molecular genetics, disease surveillance and taxonomy.
“As an intern, Rachel was seen as a highly engaged student with great potential for becoming a leader in mosquito control and vector biology,” Lucas said. “She’s dedicated, hardworking and a perfect fit for the district. Her specific expertise in marine and aquatic biology learned at FGCU has helped flourish our mosquitofish program, aquatic weed program and saltmarsh mosquito habitat research.”