Julian Rodriguez - Summer '15 Field Work in Mexico

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Blog #1

Tuesday - 16/6/2015 – Hunucma

This summer, I was offered the amazing opportunity to come to Merida, Mexico to help out PhD student Marissa Grossman on her dissertation project, which brings me here to the state of Yucatan.  This would be my first time in Mexico and Central America in general, and my first time working in the field for a research project, and I’m really excited for all that was to come.  Marissa and I share an apartment at a great location right off of Paseo Montejo, the main and most historic street in Merida.  We’re at a short 10min walk to downtown, which is full of culture, history, and great food, and at times reminds me a little bit of my home in Puerto Rico.

Today marked the first time the team and I went out to the towns and communities of Merida to begin our fieldwork.  Our destination was around an hour drive away: the community of Hunucma.  Upon our arrival (around 9am), we divided into 4 pairs, set up and gave out the gear (consisting of a Prokopack, collection cups and lids, tape, pen, a map, and ovitrap materials), and each selected 1 out of 5 pre-selected city blocks (labeled A-E) in the community to sample.  The remaining block was done later as one big group after the 4 others were done.  When all the preparation is complete, we headed out to our respective blocks ready to collect as many mosquitoes as we could find inside the houses.  For this community, I was paired up with Checho, a soon-to-be PhD student at the Autonomic University of Yucatan (UADY), who has had a lot of experience and taught me everything that I needed to know about the work in the field as we went along.  In general, the work is as follows: each pair has to go to at least 10 houses on their block and collect approximately 50 mosquitoes total.  In every house that you work in, one person goes around all the rooms in the house (that the owner gives us permission to go into) with the Prokopack aspirator, collecting as many mosquitoes as possible. The other one gives out a survey about insecticide use in the house to the owner and then sets up an ovitrap in the patio outside the house, filling in all the information about the location of the house so that we can find it again when we collect them.  Seems fairly easy to accomplish, but the hard part is having people let you into their homes, which was a big problem for Checho and me, and even the rest of the team at Hunucma.  I was told that some blocks and communities are easier, though, and the study has been going on for 3 years now, so people are used to our work. The first few houses that we visited, Checho did the introductions while I listened, and he collected mosquitoes while I gave the survey.  When I finished, I was able to watch him use the Prokopack and learn all the tricks to getting as many mosquitoes as you can.  After 5 houses, we switched roles and I was able to practice collecting mosquitoes on the remaining houses and get the hang of it.  Unfortunately, we were only able to visit 7 houses, collecting close to 10 mosquitoes total… which was disappointing.  There simply weren’t any mosquitoes in the houses, which we expected after hearing from the locals that it hadn’t rained for a good time, even though the rainy season was supposed to have started.  Nonetheless, we left with what we had, and proceeded to the final block, but again with similar results.  The one thing we had going for us was that we were all able to place ovitraps in houses, so hopefully those will yield enough mosquitoes to make up for the low amount we could catch.  Frustrated and tired, we left for the lab around 3pm to count, ID, label, and store what miserable number of mosquitoes we had.  Oh, yeah the lab work is another set of processes, but I’ll explain it and let you know how it goes when we actually have something to work with.

Blog #2

Wednesday - 17/6/2015 – Acanceh

Wake up at 6:30am for another day of work at the field, which should’ve been Hunucma, but after Tuesday’s failure, we decided to put it on hold and wait for the rains to start. This time, our destination is a community a 45min drive away: Acanceh. We had high hopes for this community because, unlike Hunucma, it is south of Merida and we knew for a fact that it had been raining, so we expected heavy mosquito collection.  Again, we arrive at the community and do our routine set up and preparation before heading out.  Today I was paired up with Azael Cohuo, or as we call him, Cohui, another experienced worker in the lab at UADY.  Together we visited block D, and boy did we get some mosquitoes.  From the get-go we started getting tons of them, both Culex and A. aegypti (the dengue vector and our mosquito of interest).  In some houses we collected more than 50, and in total, we collected more than 200 mosquitoes, around 60 of them being A. aegypti.  Even though it’s good news for our project, it’s also a sign that this community is at a risk of getting infected with and spreading the dengue virus.  In general, the houses here at Acanceh have more backyards and aren’t that clean, which creates a lot of breeding sites for mosquitoes, especially A. aegypti.  Knowing this, we wanted to make sure that the locals are aware the risks and how to minimize them, so we advise them on how to reduce the mosquito population in their homes, such as keeping them clean to eliminate breeding sites, adding screens to windows, and trying to keep doorways and windows closed as much as possible.  On most occasions our input is well received, and many are really grateful for our help, which is very rewarding.  After we were done with all of the blocks, we all left tired, but really satisfied after a very successful day at the field, which also meant a really long workday at the lab soon, but that’s another story.

Blog #3

Friday – 6/19/15 - Lab

After three days of hard work in the field, it’s time to change things up a bit and work in the lab.  The team decided to take the entire work day and dedicate it to organizing all of the samples and data collected from the field, which is of course, necessary.  The first thing we do is take all the mosquito cups from the field that we had placed in the freezer, ID them, and separate the males and females.  The information about the community and house that they were retrieved from is all neatly jotted down in data tables as well.  They are later placed in PCR plates with RNA Later and stored.   That’s pretty much all there is to it, just some tedious work that needs to be taken care of, but with the help of the entire team, we’re able to do it fairly quickly.  The coolest part of the lab is the work in the insectary, which is where all the lab mosquitoes are grown.  They have a ton of cages with lots of mosquitoes just buzzing around and each cage is from a certain part of a community.  There, all the papers from the ovitraps we had placed in the field are put in buckets of water, where all the eggs hatch into larvae and grow to adult mosquitoes.  A lot of interesting work is done with them, but the coolest (I’d rather say scariest) thing the do is FEED the female mosquitoes so they can lay their eggs, and by feed I mean literally placing, or I should say surrendering, your arm to mosquito-filled cages and subjected helplessly to the wrath of these blood-thirsty mosquitoes, which I foolishly decided to attempt.  It was a nightmare.  The guys there made it seem like nothing, but I mean, growing up at home in Puerto Rico I always avoided mosquitoes at all costs for fear of contracting dengue or chikungunya, so you could say I wasn’t all that comfortable just watching them suck the life out of me.  Nonetheless, even though I ended up with over 30 itchy and swollen mosquito bites on my hand and arm, it was a learning experience that I won’t forget.  Would I do it again? NO, but for the sake of science… maybe.

Blog Post #4

Thursday – June 25, 2015 – Conkal

Today we had the opportunity to visit another community a short 30min drive away called Conkal, but this time around, the job would be more challenging.  Only 3 pairs of people were able to come out today, so we had to finish all 5 blocks together, and trust me when I tell you, it was ROUGH. I mean walking 1 block from house to house under the 95 degree heat of the sun without a breeze is tough in itself, imagine doubling that.  Nonetheless, we set out to our individual blocks determined to find some mosquitoes and finish all the blocks in time, and we did, although we did encounter some obstacles along the way, me specifically.  While we were at a house, my partner Eduardo (we call him Jedi) was conducting the survey and I was aspirating the house.  When I reach the kitchen, I see this really tall open armoire with 5 shelves full of pots, pans and a bunch of other random objects going from the floor all the way to the ceiling.  And I thought “man if I were a mosquito I would totally hide in this stuff”, so I shook the bottom shelf and a cloud of mosquitoes just flies out!  But before they knew it, BOOM I had captured them all in my cup.  I kept doing this for each shelf, and I felt like a god.  Engulfed in the intensity of this mosquito-catching frenzy, I underestimated the height of the armoire, and going for the top shelf all of a sudden I hear *click!*, and the aspirator stops running… Next thing I know all my mosquitoes start escaping and all I feel is the life being sucked out of me, as I watch each and every mosquito fly away.  I covered the cup as fast as I could, but I had lost most of my samples… but I wasn’t going to give up, no, I was determined to catch each and every one of them back, and so I did.  Grabbing them on the walls, under the tables, under chairs and everywhere, I managed to capture the majority of the escapees and make up for my costly mistake.  It was a very frustrating moment, but I turned it around into a story of bravery and courage that will be told and heard by many for years to come. 

Once that was done, we all drove back and got ready for a soccer match in the evening as per Dr. Gonzalo’s request.  So at 7pm we all met at the soccer fields of Fut7 and had a very intense 5v5 match.  My team, unfortunately, lost 8-6, but I did manage to score 3 goals, and may or may not have nutmegged Dr. Gonzalo a 2 or three times as well (sorry Gonzalo!).  All in all, we had a really fun time, and I look forward to holding another match soon.  This day also marked the end of 2 long weeks here in Merida, and they’ve been great.  I’ve really gotten used to being here because at time I find myself walking around and suddenly realize “Wait… I’m in Mexico!” I’ve already experienced it all: from culture, to great food, to history, hard work, and a lot of fun.  Yes I’ve felt homesick at times, missed my family and friends back home, but I just remind myself of how grateful I am to have their support throughout this experience.