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Fulbright Scholar Turns Talents Against Deadly Disease

August 4, 2015

Yosi Shibberu

Professor Yosi Shibberu is studying mosquito DNA to better understand how malaria is spread to humans.

In Africa, malaria takes the life of a child every 60 seconds. The World Health Organization estimates nearly 600,000 people, mostly children, died in 2013 from the disease, which is spread by mosquitos.

That’s the situation Yosi Shibberu, a mathematics professor at Rose-Hulman, found himself in last year when his Fulbright fellowship took him to Ethiopia, a country sitting in the middle of Africa’s devastating malaria problem. Shibberu, a native of Ethiopia, traveled to the east African nation as a Fulbright Scholar-one of 13 past and current Rose-Hulman faculty members to earn such a fellowship.

Malaria is almost unheard of in North America, Europe, Australia and places on the earth with cold climates. But in countries close to the equator, especially in central Africa, the disease is an immense health problem. Worldwide, the WHO estimates there were 198 million cases of malaria in 2013 and 3.4 billion people are at risk in more than 100 countries.

Shibberu, who has been teaching at Rose-Hulman since 1992, went to Ethiopia with the intention of researching fundamental problems in bioinformatics, an area that uses mathematics to analyze biological data. But those expectations blew away almost as soon as he stepped off the plane.

Mosquito Village

Mosquito village: Researches in Africa are attempting to learn why some mosquitos carry malaria and some don’t. This “mosquito village” in Ethiopia assists researchers engaged in that work, including Yosi Shibberu, a Fulbright scholar and Rose-Hulman professor of mathematics.

“No [Fulbright] plan survives the first day,” Shibberu says recalling those first few days in Jimma, the Ethiopian city where he conducted research at Jimma University. Local researchers wanted his help combating malaria, one of the country’s top health priorities.

With that, Shibberu starting exploring why some types of mosquitos carry the malaria parasite and some don’t. Fortunately, a group of researchers from around the world had just published the complete DNA sequences for 17 mosquito species. Some carry malaria and some don’t. Shibberu’s task was to use mathematics to discover mosquito genes linked to carrying malaria. Once known, that information could offer clues for how to halt the disease’s transmission.

“This was really need-based research,” he says.

Researchers are considering several ways to combat the spread of malaria, including the use of vaccines and insecticides, Shibberu says, adding DNA research tackles the problem at its genetic source.

“It’s exciting,” Shibberu says of his new line of research, which is applicable to diseases transmitted by other insects. “You come back [from a Fulbright fellowship] and try completely new things you’d have never thought of before,” he says.