In 2015, genetics professor Francisco Pelegrí launched a course called Developmental Genetics for Conservation and Regeneration that ties directly to his ongoing research program. The aim is to have students think about how they could use molecular genetics to preserve biodiversity. Students learn about topics from cellular reprogramming to synthetic biology.
“Pretty much everything I’ve learned about biobanking, I’ve learned by teaching this class,” he says.
And it’s growing in popularity. In the first year of the course, Pelegrí had four students; last year he had 60.
Pelegrí also leads an optional study abroad trip to Costa Rica each spring. “The study abroad is essentially an extension of the in-house course,” he says.
In Costa Rica, he and his students are studying the feasibility of using mosquitoes for sample collection. In 2019, the group attempted to test some mosquito collection methods, but they had little success. “It rained on us the whole time we were there, and there weren’t a lot of mosquitoes,” says graduate student Trevor Chamberlain MS’19, who went on the trip because he won a coin toss with fellow student Ryan Trevena. Though the team was drenched at the time, prior to their arrival, an extended period of drought in the sampling area — a rainforest, no less — had caused a decline in the mosquito population, highlighting one way that climate change can complicate research.
The COVID-19 pandemic also complicated matters. It forced Pelegrí to cancel the 2020 and 2021 trips, but he has high hopes for their prospects in 2022. “Costa Rica is notorious for not letting people take samples out of Costa Rica,” he says. “But nobody cares about mosquitoes. They basically said, ‘you can take your mosquitoes with you.’”
Pelegrí has even started talking with his students about the possibility of engineering mosquitoes to go and gather blood samples. “Mosquitoes may not work at all, but we are trying to be innovative,” he says. “The important thing is to get the process going with the latest technologies.”
Pelegrí’s enthusiasm is obvious to everyone around him. “He is one of the most passionate people I’ve met,” Chamberlain says. And he wants his students to share that enthusiasm. For the past six years, Pelegrí has been collecting photos of all of them. He hopes to eventually have enough to create a photo mosaic. A viewer could step back from the collage and watch the small photos merge into a larger picture.
“I’m trying to teach them that we’re all part of the process,” he says. “There are seven billion people on the planet, so there are seven billion problems. But there are also seven billion solutions.”