You might think that physics doesn’t lend itself well to this endeavor, but the role of physicists on health is everywhere

As an astrophysicist, I search for the distant birth of black holes and aim to advance our fundamental understanding of the universe. However, I’ve always kept an eye on the problems of the world around us, and I believe that scientists should invest time pursuing ideas that can have direct impact on other people. Looking at my four, healthy children is enough to convince me that everyone should be able to live healthy and productive lives free from preventable diseases.

You might think that physics doesn’t lend itself well to this endeavor, but the impacts of physicists on health are everywhere. Computed tomography (CT) and positron emission tomography (PET) both emerged from basic physics research, as did magnetic resonance imaging (or MRI). MRI technology, in fact, came out of I. I. Rabi’s work on atomic physics research in the very building at Columbia’s Pupin Laboratories where I now work.

A few years ago, I began to see how the tools I use in astrophysics – optics, instrumentation and data analysis techniques – could be applied to mosquito-borne malaria. For centuries humankind has been trying to defend itself against malarial mosquitoes’ attack. Yet, despite the prevalence of prevention methods such as insecticides and mosquito nets, we still do not have a way to provide complete protection from mosquito-borne illnesses.

So my group decided to study how optics can be used in the global fight against malaria. Because mosquitoes use their sensory system to find prey, including humans, we are exploring the ways that light barriers affect these sensory systems. We have seen that we can guide, repel, damage or even kill potentially infected mosquitoes with light. In fact, when we apply the light barrier, mosquitoes will not fly into our “protected area,” and most turn right around and fly off.

To gain greater insight into the drivers of mosquito behavior, we have also conducted light wall experiments with model insects such as fruit flies (see Figure 1.). We also found that when we turn off the genes governing specific sensors, a light wall still repels fruit flies. These findings can suggest that complex neurological responses involving multiple sensors control fruit flies’ – and likely mosquitoes’ – responses to light.

Figuring out the science behind mosquito sensory response is not the only challenge in our work. Any possible “light wall for malaria prevention” will also need to be designed for use in communities without electricity. While this adds complexity to our work, a low-powered device that delivers light and electricity could have benefits well beyond malaria prevention. Imagine a child reading by the light provided by her optics-based mosquito repellent.

The practical implementation of a device like this is still a ways away. We are currently studying the efficacy of different light wall characteristics and their impact on the biological parameter space. In tandem, we are working to identify possible use case scenarios. In the future, we will also need to optimize power consumption and test synergistically integrated devices.

Despite the challenges – and the work that remains – we need new research and tools like this if we want to overcome malaria once and for all. I now consider myself – a physicist who searches for the birth of black holes – a part of this fight, and hope that someday I can tell my children that our research helped pave the way for new tools to prevent malaria.


Read the other blogs in the Grand Challenges in Global Health Series

Bill Gates, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Great Ideas From Unexpected Places
Chris Wilson, Global Health Discovery Program, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Engaging the Best Minds to Tackle Global Health Challenges
Keith Jerome, University of Washington, Slicing HIV DNA from Infected Human Cells
Dan Feldheim, University of Colorado, Boulder, The Golden Treatment: Staying One Step Ahead of Drug Resistance

Dr. Szabolcs Márka is an associate professor in the Department of Physics at Columbia University.