College student studies bugs and helps save lives

If summer internships sound like months of doing pointless work in a dull lab or office with no self-fulfillment, consider spending a summer working in Venezuela to save millions of South Americans, feeding deprived alligators and being surrounded by rattlesnakes. That’s what Ryan Fehr, senior psychology major specializing in industrial organizational psychology, did for his internship this past summer.

Fehr earned the opportunity to conduct research this past summer in Oklahoma and Venezuela by winning a National Science Foundation grant. He was awarded the grant based on research he conducted in Italy during his junior year. The grant provided a $3,000 stipend as well as traveling costs and accommodations.

After assisting with studies for a few weeks in Oklahoma, Fehr headed to Venezuela with a fellow undergraduate student from Ithaca College and an Oklahoma State graduate student. The Oklahoma State University student was originally from Mexico and fortunately for the two American undergraduates, spoke Spanish.

It soon became obvious, Fehr said, that he and the other undergraduate were not originally from Nerid?, the small village where which they stayed in Venezuela. At 6 feet 2 inches and 6 feet 3 inches, they both stuck out in a crowd.

“Some times people would be like, ‘Fuck you, Americans,’ and next people would be saying how much they love American movies and stuff,” Fehr said.

Fehr made sure to go sightseeing while in South America. He was able to go horseback riding in the Andes and to Pico Espejo, the highest point in Venezuela at 4,765 meters. He reached the site by what is called the longest cable car in the world.

“The air is so thin up at the top that people pass out all the time,” Fehr said. “One woman fainted as she was standing next to me, and started bleeding a lot. She ended up OK, but it’s not the most comforting thing to see when you’re three miles up and have no semblance of guardrails around you.”

Fehr said he also became sick while in Venezuela and lost 10 to 15 pounds, possibly due to food poisoning.

His work there centered on Chagas disease, which is incurable and, in its chronic phase, may cause damage to the heart and intestines. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports Chagas disease as being endemic in 21 countries, with 16 to 18 million peopple infected and 100 million people – about 25 percent of the population of Latin America – at risk.

The disease is caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, which is transmitted by triatomine bugs, large bloodsucking insects, according to the WHO. If the triatomine bites, Fehr said, the infected person would have medical problems for 20 years and eventually die.

The bugs are currently kept under control with pesticides. WHO says many countries have had success with programs that include spraying walls in houses and creating peridomestic resting places with residual, long-lasting insecticides.

Using these chemicals, however, is bad for the ecosystem, Fehr said. It also can get expensive and diluting the pesticides would allow the bugs to become immune.

Fehr’s work included testing ways that would kill the triatomine bugs in a more environmentally friendly way. One way is to constipate the bugs by making them drink saline.

It may sound like an easy task, but it actually involves unique tactics. Fehr filled rubber condoms with saline as the rubber simulates skin. Heating the condom entices the bugs to bite from short range, but the interns then needed to find different scents to attract the bugs from longer ranges. One, Fehr said, was that of raccoon urine, which he had transported with him into the country.

The interns’ contributions paid off, as the research was subsequently published in a Brazilian parasitology journal.

Fehr spent the first few weeks of his summer program at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Okla. He worked there with a comparative psychologist studying alligators and rattlesnakes.

Fehr carried out feeding experiments with alligators, testing the reptiles’ after being fed and after not being fed. The research was aimed at studying the eye revolution of the creatures.

“It was pretty funny,” he said of the hungry alligators jumping at him after food.

Fehr was startled by the abundance of rattlesnakes in the lab where he worked.

“There were snakes everywhere,” he said. Upon casually leaning against a bag on the counter, he would jump before realizing that one of the research specimens was inside.

Before leaving for Venezuela, Fehr was also involved in phrenology research. Phrenology is the study of the different shapes of the head to determine a person’s character.