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Westminster student, professor continue mosquito research in Costa Rica

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Posted on Wednesday, September 12, 2018

NEW WILMINGTON, PA – A Westminster senior and biology professor traveled to Costa Rica over the summer to continue their work on a mosquito-related research study.

Dr. Diana Ortiz, assistant professor of biology, and Tia Kowalo, a senior environmental science major, continued investigating the host feeding preferences of mosquito species collected at the Lomas Barbudal Biological Preserve (LBBP), located near the city of Bagaces in northwestern Costa Rica.

The pair first traveled to Costa Rica during the summer of 2017, and their study found important mosquito vectors feeding on a few hosts, including humans. This year’s preliminary data is showing a higher mosquito species diversity and host feeding preferences.

Ortiz and Kowalo worked in collaboration with Dr. Laura Sirot and Patrick Gilkey from the College of Wooster in Ohio, and Dr. Adriana Troyo from the University of Costa Rica (UCR) in San Jose.

The research team spent their first few days in San Jose and at the Universidad Tecnica Nacional in Cañas while the rest of their time was spent collecting and identifying mosquitoes at the LBBP.

During the study, the team was able to stay onsite at the LBBP forest ranger station. The DNA extraction analysis of blood-fed mosquitoes, performed by Sirot and Gilkey, took place at UCR in San Jose.

Preliminary results of this year’s study already have found a higher diversity of mosquito vertebrate hosts, including coati, domestic cattle, deer, and several reptiles and bird species.

“Several mosquito-borne pathogens infect people in Costa Rica, including dengue, Zika, and chikungunya viruses. However, few studies have examined mosquito host preferences in the country. Our study so far has uncovered novel information about mosquito ecology in the region. We hope that the data produced will contribute to the knowledge on mosquito-borne disease transmission dynamics in the region,” said Ortiz.

This research project also provided Kowalo with valuable field and laboratory experience, unique at the undergraduate level.

“This opportunity greatly helped improve my scientific research skills, promoted my networking with other scientists, and stimulated my drive for further knowledge concerning mosquito research,” said Kowalo, who plans to study environmental health in graduate school and possibly pursue a career in disease vector biology and control.

In addition to conducting their study, Ortiz and Kowalo were also able to experience the local wildlife.

“Waking up every morning by the loud sound of howler monkeys was probably one of the coolest things that we experienced while staying at the forest ranger station,” said Ortiz.

Kowalo is a 2015 graduate of Canon-McMillan High School. She is the daughter of Linda Kowalo of Canonsburg.

Ortiz joined the Westminster faculty in 2014. She earned her undergraduate degree from the Universidad del Turabo in Puerto Rico, her master’s from Jackson State University, and her Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina.

Project and travel funds were provided to Ortiz and Kowalo by the Dietz-Sullivan Summer Research Experience, sponsored by College’s Biology Program, and the Drinko Center Summer Research Fellowship Program.

For more information, please contact Ortiz at

ABOVE PHOTO: Dr. Diana Ortiz, left, and Tia Kowalo, second from left