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Tick Talk

First-year students work with DNA in search of disease-spreading insects 

Myra Dehestani, ’26, didn’t expect to be involved in a research lab exploring a critical public health issue in just her first year in college.  

But when her biological sciences professor offered her the chance to study tickborne diseases, Myra discovered a new dimension to a Bridgewater State University education.   

“That opened up an opportunity I hadn’t really considered fully,” said Myra, one of several freshmen in Dr. Jenna Mendell’s lab. “You definitely feel wanted and supported.”  

The students work with Mendell to collect ticks and analyze their DNA to determine if the parasites can pass Lyme disease and other illnesses to humans. The group shares their findings with public health officials.     

Their research comes as the CDC reports that tick bites pose a significant and growing public health threat. Nearly 500,000 Americans are diagnosed and treated for tickborne diseases every year. And cases are increasing in number and expanding geographically as a result of changes in land use and climate.   

Mendell, who is a dog owner, started researching ticks several years ago because dogs often have Lyme disease. As the effect of tickborne disease on humans grew in Southeastern Massachusetts, Mendell began focusing on research that would be useful to epidemiologists.  

Her lab works in Plymouth County, collecting ticks from the Great Hill woods on campus and nearby Carver Pond.  

“One thing we have seen is the number of ticks infected (with Lyme and other diseases) is increasing,” she said. “We have seen a positive trend line.”

Ticks are also now more active in the winter, Mendell said.  

In addition to the public health importance of their work, Mendell seeks to spark students’ scientific curiosity by including freshmen in her lab.  

“It’s getting these students excited to be here,” she said of a group that also includes Cameron Dacosta, an upperclassman in his first year studying biology. “Providing these opportunities to freshmen is incredibly valuable. They already feel a part of a community.”  

Harrison Gabriele, 26, is grateful for the opportunity to further his education while making a tangible difference in the community.    

“It’s a lot more satisfying putting in the work to do this," he said.   

Fellow biology major Josiah Severe, ’26, agreed: “It feels like you’re doing something good for society.”

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