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Midges, Climate, and Ruminants


The emergence of bluetongue--a disease caused by a virus able to infect all ruminants--has serious economic consequences, affecting the international trade of animals and animal products. Until recently, bluetongue was confined to the Americas, Africa, southern Asia, and northern Australia, with only a few incursions in Europe. However, the largest epidemic ever recorded broke in the Mediterranean Basin in 1998, persisting for up to 4 years in many countries that had never experienced the virus before.

To counteract this disease it is crucial to predict its risk in particular places and times. This is why we, at the Institute of Animal Health, are investigating where and when the blood-sucking midges that transmit this virus occur.

It might seem quite remote at first, but it was my fascination for insects that led me into this research field. I became aware of the sheer abundance and diversity of insects and of their importance in the functioning of ecosystems as a zoology undergraduate at Oxford University. An entomology course prompted a group of us to organise an expedition to the Seychelles to sample the diversity of insects in wetlands (most of which were a short walk from the beach!), a habitat under threat from development on these islands. After that, I knew I wanted to carry out some kind of applied research on insect ecology, ideally with fieldwork somewhere warm!

Following my degree, I was filling in time working for the University Museum, mainly lugging specimens of weird and wonderful invertebrates from one basement room to another. One afternoon, feeling rather subdued after dropping some vials from Darwin's Beagle voyage, I saw, advertised on the board, a PhD position at Liverpool University. Its aim was to investigate the ecology and conservation of the little-studied southern damselfly, which reaches the northern edge of its range in Britain. The position, which was sponsored by conservation organisations-- English Nature, the Environment Agency, and the Countryside Council for Wales--that wanted to design appropriate management for the species in Britain, involved fieldwork in South England and Wales.

I spent three and a half years up to my knees in the peat of heathland streams, investigating the biology of this rare damselfly. The conservation organisations were very supportive, providing field assistants and equipment that would be hard to obtain on a standard research council studentship budget. For such organisations, sponsoring PhDs provides a cost-effective way of carrying out in-depth research into rare species and habitats. The Environment Agency in particular welcomes project proposals from young, interested researchers geared toward achieving targets for species and habitats as set out in the UK Biodiversity Action Plans document.

The fact that my research would benefit the damselfly made it much easier to count larvae outside in mid-January, and I enjoyed disseminating my findings to conservation officers and land managers. I learned statistical techniques for mapping insects and their habitats and became interested in the relative roles of climate and environment in governing the distribution and abundance of insects.

A few months after finishing my PhD, I saw an advertisement in New Scientist for a postdoc at the Institute for Animal Health ( IAH) investigating these questions, but this time for insects of veterinary importance. The project involved risk-assessment of biting midge-borne diseases in Mediterranean Europe using a combination of vector surveillance and geographical information systems (GIS). A GIS is a programme in which layers of different types of information about a set of geographic locations can be stored and analysed.

Like those of other insects, the distribution and abundance of midges are strongly influenced by climate factors such as temperature and moisture. In addition, they require hosts for bloodmeals and dung or moist ground in which to breed. When combined with vector and disease surveillance, GIS is a powerful tool for exploring the complex and dynamic interactions between viruses, vertebrate hosts, midges, and environmental factors. Models of the spatial and temporal relationships between these layers can be used to produce predictive risk maps and set up disease control measures.

Although I lacked several of the specific criteria for this job, such as skills in midge identification and virology, I felt confident that I would be able to pick these up quickly and thought that my experience of fieldwork and statistics were relevant to the post. The fact that I got the job shows that, if you are very keen on a particular post, it is good to apply even if you don't fulfil all the requirements--employers often list all of their ideal criteria. So, even if you don't quite measure up to that ideal, you might have the most important skill for the job or more skills than the other candidates. I also think it is worth waiting for the right postdoc after your PhD because your choice is likely to define the course of your research for quite some time.

There are several advantages to working in an institute. At IAH, I find that resources are more readily shared between groups and grants than in universities, and that the support facilities are generally excellent. Frequent group meetings and seminars across research groups make for an interesting environment in which it is possible to take a holistic approach to research. However, one is perhaps more likely to gain funding to investigate more 'blue sky' questions--for example, how and why insect vectors evolve resistance to disease--in a university than in an institute. But because my postdoc is also an EU project, I have had fantastic opportunities to travel--so far I have been to Bulgaria, Spain, and Greece on fieldwork and have enjoyed working with other European scientists.

There are many analytical and field techniques which are useful in both conservation ecology and medical and veterinary entomology so that individuals with experience in one of these areas should not feel confined to their original field of research. As for myself, I hope to apply the range of new analytical skills I am gaining during this postdoc to map other insects or other vectors and diseases in the future.

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