Helen Wagner Coello, Graduate Student
Laboratory of Tropical Genetics
Department of Biological Sciences
Florida International University

Adviser: Matthew DeGennaro , PhD
Project 1: Understanding vector ecology, arbovirus infectious rates & insecticide resistance to optimize mosquito control
Specific Aim 2: Determine how novel vector control tools can be used in conjunction with currently used methods to improve integrated vector control strategies for urban environments.

Helen Wagner Coello is a PhD student in Biology at Florida International University (FIU) in the DeGennaro Lab, led by Dr. Matthew DeGennaro. Helen completed her Bachelors in Biology at FIU along with the Honors and Quantifying Biology in the Classroom (QBIC) programs. The QBIC program gave her an applied understanding of research with real experience.  Helen began in the DeGennaro Lab as a lab manager and soon became a PhD student in the lab as she gained interest in mosquito research. 

Helen’s PhD research focuses on the genetics of wild caught Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. By looking at the genome of mosquitoes collected throughout Florida, they can gather more information about how much variation exists and hopefully aid mosquito control agencies in fighting resistant mosquito populations. Through her genetic work, they hope to identify emerging mechanisms of wild insecticide-resistant mosquitoes. 

Helen’s PhD research also focuses on the circadian behavior of female Ae. aegypti mosquitoes. Specifically, what time during the day mosquitoes are more likely to bite and how this knowledge can inform public health decisions. In lab studies, mosquitoes are typically active during the day, but if their hosts shift their activity from day to night the mosquitoes may be able to adapt. In  the Miami region of Florida, human activity increases in the evening, and Helen’s ongoing research is finding that some of the wild-caught mosquitoes from this area have shifted their circadian rhythm to also be more active at night. If this shift in behavior is common, this can greatly affect management strategies such as when mosquito control agencies spray. 

Figure by undergrad Jessica Quiñones depicting Ae. aegypti’s known activity peaks which occur during dawn and dusk

Collecting Ae. aegypti mosquitoes throughout southeast Florida, they can explore the gene flow in mosquito populations. Helen’s research hopes to better understand how populations change in connectedness and how related different mosquitoes populations are. If mosquitoes are evolving different alleles to allow them to survive, it can greatly inform researchers to better understand mosquito population dynamics.   

The DeGennaro lab just completed the third semester of an internship program focused on teaching students hands-on mosquito biology.  Students are sent supply kits to collect mosquito eggs using FIU ovicups in their backyards. Helen works with Dr. DeGennaro to lead this internship by organizing students, creating lessons, and training students how to analyze field samples. This summer semester they had approximately 150 students! Learning more mosquito ecology and risk of mosquito encounters at their homes, students are given powerful knowledge and awareness to protect themselves and their families. To follow the internships instagram click here!

(Left) Ovicup students use to collect mosquito eggs (Middle) A student’s egg paper from a field collection using the ovicup (Right) Mosquito pupae being identified by sex

The last goal of Helen’s dissertation is to connect the Ae. aegypti genetic and behavioral patterns to potential environmental attributes. Mosquitoes are dependent on their surrounding environment and identifying specific characteristics that drive genetic or behavioral differences will continue to aid public health officials. For Helen, engaging the community in this public health initiative is incredibly important, especially in South Florida since Ae. aegypti is spreading throughout the southeast. Her research will help raise awareness, get people engaged, and help fight the bite in Miami.

Here is a GIF of mosquitoes lured into an ovicup trap in the field from an intern this semester

Helen’s research has been cited in the FIU Biomolecular Sciences Institute (BSI) newsletter as being a Graduate Student Appreciation Week (GSAW) Scholarly Forum Presenter for her “Mapping genetic diversity and insecticide resistance of Aedes aegypti in Florida” and she also presented her research at the 2020 FIU Biosymposium. Helen received travel support for young professionals to this year’s American Mosquito Control Association meeting, but due to the COVID-19 has been deferred to next year. Beyond her outreach with undergraduate students in the internship, Helen volunteers with children as part of the Fairchild Challenge Panel at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden to engage with younger students and their research designs. She also volunteers at the Miami Cancer Institute in pediatric oncology and enjoys talking with kids about her research and the jobs they may have one day in the STEM field. 

To follow Helen’s research check out the links below:
DeGennaro Lab Page
Follow Helen on Twitter

Helen’s FLAGG internship Instagram