After a research trip to Cameroon, Michael Zulch ’17 published an article detailing new methods for detecting malaria and lymphatic filariasis in mosquitoes. The methodology parallels the process that research labs around the world are using to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.

New Pathways

Deep in the savannahs of Cameroon, Michael Zulch ’17 and fellow Elms College alumnus Nils Pilotte ’05 set up traps to capture nature’s most iconic agent of infectious disease: the mosquito.

Working with a group of researchers from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and Centre for Research in Infectious Diseases, the Elms duo collected 616 mosquito samples over the course of two weeks. Their goal? To develop diagnostic tests, or “assays,” to determine if the insects were carriers of malaria or lymphatic filariasis.

(L to R) Michael Zulch ’17, Nils Pilotte ’05, and Joseph Pryce (Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine) wear local attire to celebrate their final day in Cameroon.

“Our public health efforts are starting to provide a pathway to eradication of these diseases,” said Zulch, who majored in biology at Elms and is now completing his Ph.D. at Boston University. “But, like COVID-19, they reemerge in hotspots, and it’s difficult to contain them. We need a cost-effective way to monitor cities and towns that doesn’t involve testing people’s blood.”

The global spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) catapulted the topic of infectious diseases into public consciousness in early 2020. However, for many developing countries around the world, especially those in Africa, the burden of infectious disease has been an everyday reality since the advent of modern epidemiology. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 120 million people across 72 countries suffer from lymphatic filariasis — a disease not found in the United States. The World Health Organization’s World Malaria Report 2019 notes that 228 million cases of malaria occurred globally, with 93% impacting the most poverty stricken regions of Africa.

I learned to love research at Elms. I don’t think I’ll ever let go of that.”

Michael Zulch ’17
At a makeshift processing lab in Mbalmayo, Cameroon, Joseph Pryce and Nils Pilotte ’05 transfer the day’s catch of mosquitoes into more permanent storage.

Zulch and Pilotte’s research offers a way for public health officials to respond to outbreaks more efficiently, effectively, and economically. At their core, the diagnostic tools they developed are entirely noninvasive for human subjects. But, even more importantly, the particular way in which the tests analyze the DNA of each insect results in more accurate detection rates of malaria and lymphatic filariasis. More diagnostic accuracy leads to a more informed, streamlined decision making process when an outbreak is on the rise. With widespread implementation, the pair’s research can save governments a great deal of expense when it comes to managing public health.

First Author

For Zulch, publishing his work in PLOS ONE, an open-access science journal, is a milestone in his personal career. “Peer-reviewed publications are the currency of academia,” he said. “They’re an academic’s legacy to the field.”

Nets like the one shown here are used to catch flies (Chrysops), the vectors for parasitic worms (Loa loa).

Michael appears as first author on “Selection and exploitation of prevalent, tandemly repeated genomic targets for improved real-time PCR-based detection of Wuchereria bancrofti and Plasmodium falciparum in mosquitoes.” In academic circles, the position of first author symbolizes prestige. Having one’s name appear at the front of a citation is tantamount to being recognized as the driving force of the article’s authorship and intellectual quality.

Like many Elms alumni working in the sciences, Michael is grateful for the foundational experience he gained on campus in the research labs of the Lyons Center. Working with professor Janet Williams, Ph.D., Michael became an expert on “multispecies bacterial communities” living in the gastrointestinal tracts of horses. His success wasn’t handed to him on a silver platter, however. Michael describes his undergraduate experience as an ongoing search for new opportunities.

“Anybody can do science, really,” he said. “But it’s a matter of finding the right opportunity, or getting the right introduction to the community that opens the door for you. That’s what Elms gave me.”

Helping students gain professional experience is one of the strengths of the biology program at Elms. Students working in professor Williams’ lab can capitalize on their research experience by presenting their work at the Pioneer Valley Microbiology Symposium (PVMS), an annual conference sponsored by area colleges, universities, and labs.

Michael’s first big break was at PVMS, where he met Elms alumnus Nils Pilotte. Nils recruited Michael to join Smith College as a research scientist after graduation, based on the fact that he had learned next-generation sequencing (NGS) and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) techniques at Elms. Nils then offered Michael the opportunity to join his study of mosquitoes, asking him to take the lead in developing an effective test for analyzing genetic material.

Michael’s time at Boston University has been incredibly productive—he was accepted into the 2020 cohort of the Synthetic Biology and Biotechnology (SB2) Predoctoral Training Program. The SB2 fellowship provides Michael with two years of funding for research conducted in the fields of synthetic biology and biotechnology. These research areas are more important than ever, Michael said, as they are foundational to the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.

“Always seek out extracurricular activities that help you define yourself professionally, regardless of their immediate relevance,” Michael said. “Don’t be afraid, even if that involvement is outside of your hometown. It may even take you to Africa.”

This story was published in the Fall 2020 issue of Elms Magazine.

Michael in the Larkin Lab at Boston University.