March 31, 2011

West Nile Fever Virus Surveillance Cooperative Program

“Most of the interns that we’ve had working with us have made a point of telling us how much they enjoyed working in the program, and that’s a good sign.”
–Michael Sinsko, Retired Senior Medical Entomologist, Indiana State Department of Health

While many students who participate in summer internships experience 10 weeks of scholarly pursuit indoors, others choose to experience the great outdoors. As members of the West Nile Fever Virus Surveillance Cooperative Program, students are spread across the state of Indiana setting up mosquito traps to assist the Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH) in collecting and identifying mosquitoes that may potentially harbor the West Nile Virus.

Melody Bernot
Robert Pinger
Initially led by Dr. Robert Pinger, retired Director of Ball State’s Public Health Entomology Laboratory and Professor of Physiology and Health Science, the program is now under the direct leadership of Dr. Melody Bernot, Associate Professor of Biology. Under her guidance, the program continues to provide an immersive internship opportunity for students while providing the citizens of Indiana an early warning system of any impending West Nile outbreaks.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has been the primary source of funding over the last decade and has channeled these funds through the Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH) to support field and laboratory surveillance activities. Prior to entering the field, students receive special training from medical entomologists and are assigned five territories to monitor within the state. Their primary duties include going out at dusk to set up light traps that attract the mosquitoes and coming back the following morning to collect any specimens received. Then, using a microscope, they identify the genus and species of the mosquitoes and record this data.

Once completed with this task, the mosquitoes are delivered to ISDH where scientists run further tests on them. If any strains of the West Nile Virus are found, public health warnings are issued for those counties where infected mosquitoes were located. “It’s a really cool opportunity,” said Bernot. “The students are well paid, and this gives them a great opportunity to work with the state as well as provide that really needed data in terms of surveillance for West Nile.”

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In addition to Ball State students, the program recruits students from other colleges and universities across Indiana to assist with the collection of mosquitoes. This collaboration enables students to cover more territory and sample more counties. Molly Clark, wildlife major and senior at Purdue University, is a veteran of the West Nile program and has spent the last three summers working as an intern. For her, this was the ideal chance to grow professionally as she notes “It’s a job with a lot of sampling and identifying, and I thought that would be a very beneficial opportunity for my future career.”

With the help of determined and dependable students, the West Nile Fever Virus Surveillance Cooperative Program continues to experience success and growth. “2010 was a big year for us,” Bernot said, referencing the more than 300 pools of mosquitoes that last year’s interns were able to locate in 54 counties.

The program’s website reports that in 2007, Indiana recorded 24 human cases of West Nile Fever. In 2008, there were only four human cases, and three cases in 2009; however, the virus was detected in mosquitoes from 41 counties in 2008 and 37 counties in 2009. In all of these cases, it was the internship program that was responsible for the findings.

“It was pretty cool to be involved in something so big,” said Jeremy Kinder, a first-year graduate student in the Department of Biology at Ball State. “It would come out on the news about surveillance of West Nile, and it was terrific being an integral part of that.”

If you are interested in becoming an intern with the West Nile Fever Virus Surveillance Cooperative Program or interested in learning more about the project, visit or contact Dr. Melody Bernot.

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