Bill Gates Features West G Alum’s Approach for Fighting Malaria
September 13, 2023 by Private: Brian Doering

Mara Lawniczak has a lot to be excited about these days.

Mara Lawniczak has a lot to be excited about these days.

The 1993 West Geauga alum’s ingenious approach to studying mosquito evolution — and how it can be used to help fight malaria — was recently featured in Bill Gates’ “Heroes in the Field” YouTube and blog series.

“It’s an honor to have our research recognized as important by one of the greatest philanthropists of all time,” Lawniczak said. “The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supports a huge diversity of work through their granting scheme, giving billions of dollars each year to researchers working on important problems like malaria.”

Lawniczak, an evolutionary geneticist in the United Kingdom, has spent a great part of her career trying to understand how the genomes of various mosquito species have changed in response to humans’ attempts to kill them.

Lawniczak first learned about the Gates Foundation featuring her work in early 2023.

“After a few discussions in the beginning of 2023, the team that created the short video came over to the UK to film us in May,” Lawniczak said. “It was a fun couple of days exploring the collections at the Natural History Museum in London and then showing them my lab back at the Wellcome Sanger Institute.”

Research Origins

Lawniczak has been working on malaria and mosquito research for 15 years.

“Initially, I started working on mosquitoes because I had an idea that if we could figure out what genes made mosquitoes susceptible to malaria (which is caused by a parasite that lives in human blood and that only mosquitoes transmit), we could develop approaches to block malaria inside mosquitoes and stop malaria transmission,” Lawniczak said.

After studying mosquito genomes for a few years, Lawniczak was frustrated that the only insects they could study were ones that had recently been captured.

Then it dawned on her, there must be historical collections of mosquitoes in museums around the world.

While working with the Natural History Museum in London, Lawniczak and her colleagues developed a novel way to extract DNA from mosquitoes without damaging the specimen and affectionately called it “Project Neandersquito.”

“Project Neandersquito is a little project compared to most of the projects we are working on. We are simply getting the DNA out of old insect specimens from museums,” Lawniczak said. “Usually, these are pinned mosquitoes with a little piece of paper that was hand-written by the person who collected it 50 or 100 years ago to say where they got it and what they thought it was. The museums want their collections kept intact, so we leach the DNA out without grinding up the mosquito and then we sequence its whole genome and return the mosquito carcass to the museum.”

Lawniczak said they looked at mosquitoes from the 1900s, providing a view on the distant past in “mosquito-time.”

“Mosquitoes have many generations each year (whereas humans only have a generation every 20-30 years). We are trying to pin down how and when mosquitoes began to develop the insecticide resistance that is now very prevalent across Africa,” Lawniczak said. “We know resistance evolves fast and being able to study the DNA of historic specimens will help us glean what populations looked like genetically before insecticides were in usage, as well as what the initial hints of resistance in the genome looked like. This might help us do better malaria control in the future.”

Lawniczak said at times, research can feel very slow, as there is no clear end point and there are always more questions than answers, which can be both inspiring and daunting.

“I try pretty hard now to only do research that meets two key criteria: I have to enjoy it — I love evolutionary biology, so there is always an evolutionary angle in our work — and it has to be impactful,” Lawniczak said. “Ever since I found these were the two ingredients to keep me motivated through periods that feel quite slow, I have enjoyed my work hugely.”

Teacher Inspiration

Lawniczak said past teachers definitely played a role in her interest in science.

“I had a truly inspiring science teacher called Mr. Williams in middle school in Illinois —
before my family moved to Ohio — and then again at West G. I enjoyed my classes with Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Oppenheim,” Lawniczak said. “Mr. McCarthy taught a memorable class for seniors called ‘Senior Science,’ if I remember correctly.”

Lawniczak said the class was for students who had already completed all other science classes like biology, chemistry and physics.

“We were tasked with completing a research project that was to last months,” Lawniczak said. “I chose to study the ecology of a stream that ran through my parent’s back yard and at the end of the year, the whole class went on a field trip to my house so I could show them the stream and we netted some of the invertebrates that lived under the rocks and then ate dilly bars.”

In the summers after her sophomore and senior years at West Geauga, Lawniczak attended a biology camp on a little island near Acadia National Park in Maine.

“These summers were formative in my desire to do research, but I think I was on a path to biology from a very young age as I have always been fascinated by creatures great and small,” Lawniczak said. “At West G, I was super active in the conservation group — at that time called … Students for Social Responsibility — and I thought that my path would likely be marine biology or rainforest conservation.”

Lawniczak said she would have never guessed as a kid that she would become an evolutionary geneticist working on malaria.

“As I didn’t love genetics until I started my PhD and I wasn’t interested in human disease until I lived in Madagascar for a year after finishing undergrad, so science certainly took me on an unexpected path,” she said.

Lawniczak said she hopes by sharing her story, it will inspire other Geauga County kids to pursue a career in science.

“It’s an incredibly exciting time to be a scientist,” Lawniczak said. “Technology moves so fast and suddenly, with a new technological advance, whole new ways of asking questions are possible. There is so much data out there and we face so many important problems that need science.”

With AI making it ever easier to mine data, Lawniczak said science really needs people with great critical thinking skills.

“I hope any kids who are a little bit curious about whether science is for them will take a few steps to explore science as a career,” she said.

Advice for Future Scientists

When asked what parents can do to help reinforce or encourage children who are already interested in science, Lawniczak had several recommendations.

“You could ask to volunteer or get paid at a lab at one of the local colleges or universities or museums or arboretums,” Lawniczak said. “It is important to get exposure to what research really entails. If you are interested in a particular niche of science, kids should seek advice from people who have made careers in that niche as to how to get there.”

Lawniczak said it’s not always a straight path, though.

“I left science for a year thinking I was done, but missed it and returned. I also thought I should go do marine biology as an undergrad but was advised by a marine biologist to do general biology,” Lawniczak said. “I am glad for that as it exposed me to a wider variety of research and opportunities than I would have had if I had specialized earlier.”

Lawniczak said the research projects she works on are always a team effort.

“It feels good to have a happy and productive team who are committed to their research projects, but also (making) sure to have a life outside of work, so I would say building and supporting my team is my biggest personal accomplishment over the past decade,” Lawniczak said.

On the Horizon

Next up for her team is a new project called BIOSCAN, which will use DNA to monitor what is happening to insect species diversity across the UK.

“Flies may seem inconsequential, annoying, or even dangerous to most people, but it is only a few pests like malaria mosquitoes that give them a bad name,” Lawniczak said. “Most flies contribute to important things like pollination — without flies, there would be no chocolate — and pest control especially on crop pests.”

Lawniczak said they have partners all over the UK collecting one million insects over the next five years.
“We are studying and preserving their DNA to better understand how efforts to improve species diversity and do better conservation are working or not,” she said.

When asked if she ever imagined she would end up where she is now, Lawniczak said, “Definitely not.”

“I am in a truly privileged position leading a team at one of the top research institutes in the world with a lot of grant money from a variety of funders to do great science,” she said. “My stellar team encompasses 15 people who are a mix of University of Cambridge PhD students, postdocs and senior scientists from all over the world. I do often feel surprised to be here, but mostly I feel grateful.”