Science - December 16, 2010

Critical PhD researcher combats malaria with fungus

Students go about their work in a wide variety of ways, but there are not many that manage to complete a PhD thesis within three years, as Marit Farenhorst did.

Marit Farnhorst catches mosquitoes in the field in Africa
Not only did Farenhorst finish her thesis at astonishing speed, she also got all her articles published in leading journals, among them top journals PNAS and PLoS ONE. She graduated on 13 December from the laboratory for Entomology. And the next step? Her own consultancy bureau.

'I like efficiency and I am a real doer', says Farenhorst. 'I can also be pretty strong-minded and I like to do things my way.' Her research showed that fungi kill off insecticide-resistant mosquitoes. All the infected insects are dead within a week. A convenient side effect is that the two methods - insecticides and fungi - reinforce each other. As well as a thesis, her research provided her with a critical perspective on traditional approaches to the battle against malaria. Farenhorst: 'Attacking them with insecticides only creates resistance. And it is too crazy for words that DDT is still being used.'

Farenhorst's unconventionality is reflected in her thesis, in which she wrote the general discussion as a flowing story rather than, as is more usual, is short chunks with references to the chapters in the thesis. 'I think it's more readable this way.' Farenhorst is a competent speaker as well and has shone in radio and TV programmes. In 2009, a Dutch TV programme called 'The world goes on' featured her as a brilliant young researcher.   
Farenhorst came to Wageningen from the VU university in Amsterdam in 2006 to take a final-year course in which she tested methods of infecting malaria mosquitos with fungus. Clay pots are a popular hiding place with malaria mosquitoes. Farenhorst thought up a method of leaving fungal spores on the pots so that the insects taking shelter there would be infected. She was given plenty of freedom and scope to carry out her research and that suited her down to the ground. 'It was super-motivating because I was given a lot of responsibility and there was mutual trust', she explains. 'That helped me have the nerve to think more 'out of the box'.'

After her positive experiences during this work, Farenhorst was keen to continue her research and she embarked on her PhD study. She quickly realized that the problems of combatting malaria have everything to do with the lack of good methods: things that work in the lab do not necessarily work in the field. So she thinks it is important to know the situation in the field. 'A mosquito net often doesn't work because people do not even have a bed', she explains. 'So I am amazed that so many malaria experts have never been out in the field.' Farenhorst has several colleagues who share this view and it seemed an obvious move to start a research and advice institute. The new company, IN 2 CARE, will be officially launched at the beginning of 2011. 'There is a need for a cheap, effective and sustainable method of eliminating disease-carrying insects', Farenhorst explains. IN 2 CARE wants to build a bridge between new knowledge that is generated and the application of that knowledge in the form of effective and practical control methods.'