Faculty Research in Focus: Paul Leisnham

Image Credit: Edwin Remsberg

October 21, 2013 Sara Gavin

When your research revolves around invasive pests that rely on blood from humans or animals to survive and reproduce, dealing with itchy, red, swollen mosquito bites is simply an inevitable hazard of the job. Just ask Paul Leisnham, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Technology at the University of Maryland.

But it’s precisely their blood-sucking behavior that drew Leisnham to study mosquitoes in the first place. “Females have to bite vertebrates to get blood in order to lay eggs,” says Leisnham. “That always fascinated me.”

However, Leisnham will tell you that studying the behavior of mosquitoes isn’t possible without simultaneously studying the behavior of humans. “Humans are really important both in terms of getting bitten and in providing habitat for mosquitoes,” he says.

That’s why Leisnham uses an interdisciplinary approach when seeking to understand how mosquitoes spread diseases, where they breed and how to manage them. He classifies his research under an emerging field of study known as EcoHealth, which concentrates on how changes in the earth’s ecosystems affect human health.

“Mosquitoes are a good model for studying ecological health,” says Leisnham. “Many species breed in backyards in small water-filled containers, which are easy to experiment with and manipulate in the lab. They’re also relatively cheap to study.”

Leisnham is currently leading a public outreach project known as Tip n’ Trash, which aims to educate people about how to eliminate mosquitoes by discarding unused containers that hold water or emptying water-filled structures such as flower pots or tarps on a regular basis. Through print and web-based materials, Leisnham and researchers from two other institutions are teaming up with public health agencies and foundations to spread the message throughout the Baltimore and Washington, DC regions.

A native “Kiwi,” as New Zealanders are known, Leisnham’s interest in disease-carrying mosquitoes started when he was studying at the University of Otago located in Dunedin, New Zealand. He came to the United States in 2005 as a postdoctoral fellow at Illinois State University where he worked on a project funded by the National Institutes of Health to study the invasion of the Asian Tiger Mosquito (ATM), a species thought to have been introduced to the U.S. in the mid-1980s through imported tires from Japan. Identified as one of the 100 “World’s Worst Invaders,” the ATM is a known carrier of multiple viruses including West Nile Virus, Dengue Fever and Eastern Equine Encephalitis.

From Illinois, Leisnham migrated east to the University of Maryland where he accepted a position with the Department of Environmental Science and Technology (ENST). Leisnham says he was attracted to UMD because of its location along the East Coast and proximity to the Baltimore-DC region. The area’s dense population and nearby international travel and trade hubs make it more susceptible to invasions from a variety of mosquito species, including the ATM.

During his time here at Maryland, Leisnham has expanded his research to tackle other signature environmental issues that integrate social and ecological factors like storm water management and watershed health. As with his efforts to mitigate mosquito production, Leisnham’s goal is to develop strategies that encourage community involvement.

“It needs to be a bottom-up approach. People need to understand that the rain water that falls on your property doesn’t stay on your property. It goes into other people’s properties and eventually the Chesapeake Bay,” says Leisnham. “Along the way, water picks up nutrients that you apply to your lawn, for example, but don’t get used by the grass. Those excess nutrients are polluting the Bay and threatening our fisheries and wildlife. It’s the same with mosquitoes. They fly into other people’s yards and may pick up diseases or just simply painfully bite them.”

Other projects being led by Leisnham are investigating unique approaches to help citizens tackle storm water and reduce pollution to the Chesapeake Bay. The projects have received competitive grants from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Science to Achieve Results Program and the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Integrated Water Quality Program, and involve researchers from the university’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, School of Public Health and the A. James Clark School of Engineering. In partnership with community-based organizations and other institutions, the group is using techniques such as surveys, interviews, photo documentary and cutting-edge diagnostic software to identify problem areas, increase the use and awareness of best management practices, and develop solutions.

“Natural Resources are shared resources and as a society I don’t think we’ve quite developed the tools to equitably share those resources and manage them effectively,” says Leisnham.

For more information on Paul Leisnham’s research, visit http://enst.umd.edu/people/faculty/paul-leisnham.