Hitting All The Right Notes, Protecting Public Health
If Your Name is Lyric, It Helps to be Musical.
Lyric Bartholomay, an associate professor of entomology, returned to music and singing a few years ago. She performs with a pop group called Echo 18 that includes two other agriculture and life sciences faculty.
“My stage name is on my birth certificate,” she says.
She turned to singing because of her work. While going through the process to obtain tenure, Bartholomay realized her identity was dominated by work. Not wanting to wait until retirement “to have some of those enriching outside pursuits in my life,” she started voice lessons.
The creativity and passion that drives her performing and song-writing does the same for her research, teaching and outreach activities.
Bartholomay joined Iowa State in 2005 taking the place of Wayne Rowley, who was retiring. She “inherited” long-term mosquito and tick surveillance programs run by Rowley, and took on a molecular biology research program in a newly renovated lab. “It’s worked out beautifully,” she says.
She gets to teach—one of her great loves—do research she values and does outreach that is important to public health, including coordinating the state’s mosquito and tick surveillance efforts.
Entomology became something of a calling for the Colorado native. She was studying zoology at Colorado State University and took an entomology class taught by a charismatic professor.
“This class just captivated me,” Bartholomay says. She switched majors, but also was fascinated by microbiology and infectious diseases so medical entomology covered all her interests. Besides the bachelor’s degree in bioagricultural sciences and pest management from Colorado State, she earned a doctorate in comparative biomedical sciences and entomology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
As an undergrad she read about new genetically modified strategies to make malaria mosquitoes resistant to malaria parasites and other pathogens, and her studies took on an added dimension.
“I got into it for philanthropic reasons, too,” she says. “Insect-borne diseases, like malaria, kill millions and makeothers so sick they can’t function or contribute to society.”
Genetics might also have played a part. Her father, Barry Beaty, is an accomplished professor at Colorado State, doing work in the same field mosquito-borne diseases. Bartholomay even collaborates with him on a research project.
Together they are trying to find genes in the mosquito that are critical to its survival so the genes could be “turned off,” calling the process “molecular mosquitocide.” Funding for the project is from the National Institutes of Health.
“We certainly need ways to protect people chemically and by vaccines, but vector (insect) control is really important,” she says.
Insecticides can be effective, but kill more than the mosquitoes. Another disadvantage is resistance. The mosquitocide approach would allow researchers to target mosquitoes and might make resistance a nonissue.
State and federal funds for mosquito surveillance in Iowa have dried up after the flurry surrounding the discovery of West Nile virus. “It’s kind of a frustration because it’s such an important public health service that we provide and we have to struggle to fund it. The deans have been awesome in CALS because they recognize how important it is and have helped me out with a lot of support.”
Iowans who find ticks can send them into her office for identification and to see if it took any blood. The lab sends a note to tell them what tick they’ve been exposed to. Just one of three kinds of ticks in the state transmits Lyme disease, with most originating in northeast Iowa, although they are moving west.
There are about 150 cases a year of Lyme disease diagnosed in Iowa each year, she says, but the Centers for Disease Control believes the numbers are grossly underestimated.
An on-campus collaboration is taking her expertise in a new direction. Hank Harris, animal science professor, asked Bartholomay to speak to his medical microbiology class and discovered she was a “fantastic lecturer.”
“I told her if she got tired of killing mosquitoes, that we could work on vaccines for ‘mosquitoes in water,’” he says, referring to shrimp research at Harrisvaccines, the company he founded.
The shrimp-farming industry is looking for disease resistance and, like mosquitoes, they are arthropods, she says. “I think I’ve brought in some knowledge of physiology the shrimp industry was lacking.”
Of all her varied activities, Bartholomay calls teaching and mentoring students “great fun.” She enjoys hearing from them after they have gone on to graduate school and careers.
“I came into this thinking I would change the world with transgenic mosquitoes, but I hope I change the world by inspiring junior scientists to do great things.”