Local students aid Lyme disease research

The next discovery that could change the world of Lyme disease could come from the inquiring mind of a Greenwich high school or undergraduate college student.

Already, students in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Virginia, New York and elsewhere have managed to make valuable contributions to Lyme research and are being saluted by Lyme Research Alliance (LRA) for taking part in the effort to put an end to the disease.

In the last few years, a host of young students have managed to make valuable contributions to scientific knowledge about Lyme, the fastest-growing vector-borne disease in the nation.

“We’re thrilled that young people are interested in Lyme research,” Diane Blanchard, co-president of the  LRA, said. “They are unbridled in their thinking and open to all possibilities that might not have been tried before.”

Among those who have unearthed new findings are Hannah Stewart, a Plainview Old-Bethpage (New York) High School student whose research under Russell Burke, chair of the Biology Department at Hofstra University, found that both northern and southern black-legged ticks, if given the choice, preferred to feed off of lizards rather than mammal hosts such as mice.

“We found that lizards are poor hosts for the Lyme disease bacteria,” Dr. Burke said. “Down south, lizards don’t pass on Lyme disease and this keeps the rate of the disease low.”

The Brandeis University-bound Stewart showed that ticks only feed on mammals in the north when there are no lizards available. “Her work will help us move forward with our studies in our effort to understand the spread of this disease,” said Dr. Burke.

Connecticut teens have also contributed to Lyme research. Ryan Kerr, then a sophomore at Danbury High School (he is now attending Harvard University) received top honors in 2011 at the Connecticut Science & Engineering Fair for his school science project showing that introducing microscopic roundworms (nematodes) into the soil could effectively decrease tick populations.

Another Connecticut student, Paul Hansel, who attends Greenwich High School, focused last year on better deer population tracking management. Hansel, now entering 10th grade, equipped a radio-controlled model plane with an infrared camera — a Canon camera that he modified — to shoot pictures of the ground to determine where deer were congregating.

Binghamton University Professor Ralph Garruto, Ph.D., whose large research group comprised of undergraduate and graduate students investigates the spread of Lyme and other tick-borne diseases in built environments across upstate New York and the Northeast, sums it up this way: “Science needs young people immersed in research. They are scientific risk takers at this stage and aren’t afraid to make mistakes. They think out of the box and ask ‘hey, why not this?’ — bringing fresh points of view to research efforts.”

Lyme Research Alliance, formerly Time for Lyme, is a Connecticut-based, national non-profit that funds cutting-edge research into Lyme and other tick-borne diseases. For more information go to LymeResearchAlliance.org.

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