After his first taste of field research, Mark Leonard B’19 was bitten.
And now, the biology major has built a career studying and controlling dangerous mosquito populations.
Leonard’s end goal, as a research scientist at Iowa State University, is to control populations of these vector species, because they can transmit diseases to us and to animals. According to the World Health Organization, vector-borne diseases account for more than 17% of all infectious diseases, causing more than 700,000 deaths annually.
If he gets bitten in the process, it’s a risk he’s willing to take.
“You get used to it,” he said. “You develop a habit of not itching them.”
Armed with long sleeves and long pants, and typically walking around marshy areas in humid conditions, Leonard also battles the heat, various weather conditions, and many interesting people who are wary of him being near their property.
But Leonard wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The biggest focus is making sure people are safe, keeping diseases out of human circulation, as they can be chronic and even lethal,” he said. “And they’re often underreported. There’s lots of risks out there, but the work being done is definitely helping.”
Leonard came to Saint Mary’s with the goal of becoming a veterinarian.
After taking standard biology courses, he realized the versatility of a biology degree. And, after working on tick research with one of his professors, Dr. Jeanne Minnerath, and observing woodpecker scavenging behaviors with his adviser, Dr. Benjamin Pauli, he became fascinated with field research.
His work with Dr. Pauli was published in The Wilson Journal of Ornithology.
“That was my first time ever doing highly detailed scientific writing for a journal, and it was a big learning experience. I found it exciting,” he said.
The summer before grad school and during the summer of 2020, he began working with the Metropolitan Mosquito Control District (MMCD) as a control technician and inspector. “Most of what I did was fieldwork, going to various sites around the Anoka-Hennepin area, doing treatments and surveillance for both larval and adult mosquitoes. I also went out to wetlands with dry material in trucks and applied the material treatment. And I determined where and how much material should be distributed aerially by helicopter,” he said.
Leonard continued in public health entomology, graduating early from the University of Minnesota, earning a Master of Public Health degree in 2020. In grad school, he and colleagues came up with a concept for a sampling tool, and he ended up making a prototype; the results of this process were published in the Journal of the American Mosquito Control Association.
In 2021, he became a vector control director/GIS manager for Lake County Health Department in Crown Point, Ind.
“There I was in more of a directorial position,” he said. “I was responsible for leading a small crew of technicians who did what I did at MMCD and made bigger decisions for control methods. I also processed the data generated and what was reported to the state.”
Since June, Leonard has been working at Iowa State University, where life has come full circle and he is now working with students on research.
“In the summer months when it’s warm, we have a handful of counties who collect mosquitos with their own health departments and send them in for identification,” he said. “I work summers with another colleague and students to identify these samples and log them into a data form so at the end of the season, my colleague and I can pick up on patterns, determine where to sample in the future, and make recommendations.”
Looking back, Leonard says the hands-on learning he received with Saint Mary’s faculty set him up for a successful graduate experience, as well as career.
“It is one of, if not, the strongest bricks in the foundation that was laid in my professional academic life,” he said. “Having the opportunity to work in that capacity and work on projects affiliated with the internship and working with Dr. Pauli on the publications and in general with my thesis, it set a lot of really strong precedents, habits, and ways of thinking as I moved through my education and into the professional working sphere.
“The Biology Department is great. Professors are amazing. They do a great job teaching. If someone has an interest in life sciences or chemistry or biochemistry, I would definitely recommend Saint Mary’s.”