Ella Jacobs ’19 discovered her fondness for nature during her early youth, often spending hours in her backyard poring over various plants and insects. “I was fascinated by insects as a child, and as I grew up, I eventually realized that turning my passion into a professional career would give me the kind of satisfaction I could never have found in other disciplines.” In her freshman year at high school, Jacobs discovered the entomology major—a field of study dedicated to scientific analysis of insects. Arriving at Cornell, she decided to further narrow down her interest and focus on the global health concentration within entomology.
“I want to apply my academic know-how to a public health setting, and my concentration provides me with an ideal combination of my passion for entomology and the practical information needed to apply my knowledge for a positive social purpose.” Jacobs says that mosquitoes remain the most dangerous insects around the world, mainly due to their disease-carrying ability. They are harbingers of malaria and dengue, among several other potentially fatal diseases.
Learning Laboratory Methods
Jacobs spent the summer of 2017 in the Laura Harrington Lab, studying mosquitoes. She characterizes the experience as greatly beneficial for improving the quality of her research. “The work I did over the summer was far more comprehensive than the research I can conduct during the semester. I had complete control over experiments from start to finish and could pay far more attention to detail on my experiments because my attention wasn’t diverted by other academic work.”
Jacobs emphasizes that many of the fundamental methods that she learned and practiced over the summer as she studied mosquitoes, such as gender-based and size-based pupa separation techniques, will give her a massive head start when she begins her graduate studies.
Studying the Mating Habits of Mosquitoes
During the fall semester of 2017 in the Harrington lab, Jacobs analyzed mosquitoes’ mating practices, which she believes are key to controlling and limiting the insects’ global population. The female mosquito exhibits strange post-mating behavior, refusing to mate with any male mosquito except her initial mate. The male, however, continues to seek other females. Jacobs worked with several different methods to identify the genetic factors that manifest this behavior and evaluated how she can affect mating practices by manipulating the specific genes.
One of her methods, for instance, involved analyzing the effects of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with motivation and reward, on mosquitoes’ mating habits. Each mosquito contains four dopamine receptors in its brain, and Jacobs is currently comparing the mating behavior of mosquitoes possessing dopamine receptors with mosquitoes whose receptors have been artificially removed.
“My work is at an exploratory stage right now, and I have decided not to predetermine most of the variables in my experiments. I’d like to see where the research takes me.”
One possible method of analyzing the effects on mating behavior, she posits, is studying the egg-laying habits of the female. “My initial research indicates that the frequency of egg-laying may be directly linked to the presence of dopamine, and I’m currently evaluating samples to determine my hypothesis."
Jacobs also executes dissections on mosquitoes to study the respective internal characteristics of dopamine-possessing and dopamine-lacking insects, another method she explains can demonstrate clear differences caused by the variable presence of the neurotransmitter.
A Lab Experience at Rockefeller University
Jacobs is spending the spring semester of 2018 at Rockefeller University in New York City, conducting research as part of a neurobiology and genetics-focused lab. She says that the nature of her current research is open-ended. “My work is at an exploratory stage right now, and I have decided not to predetermine most of the variables in my experiments. I’d like to see where the research takes me.” Jacobs wanted to work in a genetics-based lab in order to discover what it would be like to get a graduate degree in genetics.
She says her favorite aspect of research is its exploratory nature. “I love the freedom that research brings. I can formulate my own questions, set my variables, and be creative with my experimental processes. Because the experiment is a reflection of my ideas, I feel far more satisfied with my analysis.”
Jacobs’ passion for research has convinced her to pursue a career in scientific research. Following the completion of her undergraduate degree, Jacobs plans to pursue graduate study, preferably at Cornell, in a field which she can apply to a public health setting. “The work I’m currently doing is extremely fundamental for controlling mosquito populations, and I would like to continue similar research which has a significant impact on improving public health.”