Revolutionary Minds: The Ambassadors

October 1, 2007

Excerpted from Seed Magazine. The full text of “Revolutionary Minds: The Ambassadors” appears in the October 2007 issue of Seed, on newsstands now.

By Emily Anthes

Modern science is necessarily international, and geographic borders play a dwindling role in defining issues scientists take on: poverty, climate change, shortages of food and water. Here, in the third installment of our Revolutionary Minds series, we profile eight revolutionary thinkers whose global research has the potential to effect worldwide change. They exemplify what it means to work without borders, defying not only geographic barriers but also far more profound ones—those that seem to limit access to vital resources in so many parts of the world.

They are doing so by refusing to be confined to the traditional territory of any one discipline. When we set out to find researchers tackling the problems of water scarcity, climate change, or conflict, what we discovered was that today’s leading lights cannot be so easily categorized. They pursue peace by promoting conservation, conservation by improving human health, health by borrowing lessons from business. The most innovative minds we came across were consistently the most interdisciplinary ones. By expanding the boundaries and the reach of traditional scientific research, they are reimagining the world’s future.

Arne Bomblies

The connection between malaria and water is indisputable—the mosquitoes that carry the parasite breed and develop in wet environments—but it’s not always intuitive. “More precipitation doesn’t really mean that there will be more mosquitoes,” says Arne Bomblies, an environmental engineering doctoral student at MIT. “If it rains really hard in one location, water might flood through breeding habitats and flush out the mosquito larvae,” preventing the larvae from becoming the adult insects that transmit the disease.

 

And so Bomblies knows that controlling malaria requires an understanding of water. His research involves creating better predictions of malaria transmission by coupling an  entomological model with a hydrological one. The hydrology model combines a number of variables—such as precipitation, land cover, runoff patterns, soil moisture, and air temperature—that influence the formation of the shallow, freshwater pools where  mosquitoes like to breed. High temperatures or winds, for example, cause stagnant pools to evaporate more quickly and should cut malaria incidence.

By taking all these factors into account, the model can predict where pools are likely to be located at any given hour. These results are then used in conjunction with behavioral simulations of Africa’s dominant species of malaria mosquito to identify when and where malarial disease burden will be high. “Our big picture goals are to predict the effect of climate variability and climate change on malaria burden in Africa,” he says.

This summer, Bomblies went to two villages in Niger, where he studied their drastically different patterns of malaria infection. He and his colleagues collected data to validate their model and used it to determine how the villages could reduce malaria transmission.“What happens if we eliminate that pool by filling it in?” Bombl