The World of Olivia Winokur

Have you ever wondered what it's like to be a UC Davis doctoral student researching mosquitoes?

Meet Olivia Winokur, an enthusiastic, dedicated and multi-talented medical entomologist whose childhood curiosity about a yellow fever vaccination sparked her interest in 'skeeters.

In her youth, Olivia traveled with her parents and brothers to “off-the-beaten-path” locations. “So I was exposed to vector-borne disease awareness from a young age,” she recalled. “When I was 8 years old, I remember getting the yellow fever vaccination and being curious about why I had to get it for a trip to Southern Africa. I think that was my defining moment when I learned mosquitoes are more than just annoying. Since then, I've slept under many mosquito nets and am no stranger to mosquito bites.”

“I didn't think much about making a career out of those 'skeeters, though. I attended Cornell University as undergraduate, where I studied global public health from multiple perspectives. It wasn't until I became a research assistant in Dr. Laura Harrington's lab that I became fascinated with mosquito biology and decided to pursue a career in medical entomology.”

Winokur, who received her bachelor's degree in 2015 from Cornell University, majoring in Interdisciplinary Studies and focusing on the environmental effects on human health, enrolled in the UC Davis graduate program in 2016 as a Ph.D entomology student with a designated emphasis in the biology of vector-borne diseases.

She studies with major professor and UC Davis alumnus Christopher Barker, associate professor and associate researcher in the Department of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology, School of Veterinary Medicine, who doubles as a graduate student advisor in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.

Earlier this year, Winokur received a three-year National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. A 2017 Bill Hazeltine Memorial Award also helps fund her research.

Her research at UC Davis mainly involves Aedes aegypti, also known as the yellow fever mosquito. “At present, most of the research done on mosquito-borne virus transmission is done under a very narrow range of conditions that reflect a particular mosquito species' 'optimal' rearing and adult environment,” Winokur said. “I'm interested in how conditions outside of this optimal range at both the larval and adult stages affect mosquito-borne virus transmission. I work mostly with Aedes aegypti, which transmits diseases including dengue, Zika, yellow fever, and chikungunya viruses. Currently my research is focused on Zika virus. I hope to determine how the range of conditions mosquitoes encounter outside of the lab alter their life history traits, such as survival and blood feeding behavior, as well as viral transmission so that we can better understand geographical and seasonal mosquito-borne virus risk and eventually mitigate the risk.”

A typical day in the lab: “My days are usually a bit all over the place--I typically spend some time in the BSL-3 (Biosafety Level 3) either collecting samples from infected mosquitoes or processing previously collected samples, some time back in the lab analyzing data and writing, and I'm still taking classes so a few days a week I spend the afternoon on the main campus.”

What fascinates her about mosquitoes? “People are usually wowed when I tell them there are over 3500 species of mosquitoes!” she said. “But don't worry.. not all of them transmit human pathogens. I love telling people about the natural history of different genera and species and how this affects the likelihood of pathogen transmission to humans. I'm continually fascinated by how resilient mosquitoes are, how successful they've been throughout history, and how they've completely altered human history. I actually gave a lecture on how vector-borne diseases have altered human history last quarter (Winter 2018) to an undergraduate class led by UC Davis entomology graduate students (Ent10: Natural History of Insects).” 

Born in Long Beach, Calif., Olivia grew up in Laguna Niguel, Calif., where she focused on science as a part of the Dana Hills High School Health and Medical Occupations Academy. Olivia also played basketball at Dana Hills and helped the team win its first league title.

What drew her to UC Davis? “I grew up in California so I was familiar with UC Davis from a young age. I actually applied to UC Davis as an undergraduate, but decided to try life on the East Coast instead and attended Cornell University. While at Cornell, I learned a lot about UC Davis as most of my professors had spent some time at UC Davis during their academic tenure, and a lot of the research I was reading was coming out of UC Davis. I was excited to come back to the West Coast for graduate school so UC Davis seemed like an obvious choice!”

While at Cornell, she interned at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2014, when advised by John Balbus of National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), and Joshua Rosenthal, Fogarty International Center, where she coordinated and wrote an interagency proposal for climate change mitigation in middle and low-income countries under the United Nations. "I also helped develop a global clean cook stove implementation framework to advise NIH initiatives,” she said.

Winokur is a co-author of “The Impact of Temperature and Body-Size on Flight Tone Variation in the Mosquito Vector Aedes aegypti (Diptera: Culicidae): Implications for Acoustic Lures,"  published in April 2017, in the Journal of Medical Entomology. Several other manuscripts are accepted or in preparation.

She has given presentations at the Mosquito and Vector Control Association of California and the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

Dedicated to helping high school girls transition into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) careers, Winokur is a founding board member and publicity co-chair of GOALS (Girls' Outdoor Adventure in Leadership and Science). The organization seeks “to cultivate and embolden the next generation of STEM leaders through a free, immersive, field-based summer science program for high school girls.”

“GOALS is for high school girls, inclusive of cis, trans, and gender nonbinary youth who identify with girlhood, to learn science hands-on while backpacking through the wilderness,” Winokur related. “I have worked with an incredible team of UC Davis affiliates to create GOALS to increase opportunities for high school students who identify with girlhood from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in STEM. Our first trip is happening this summer!” This year's program takes place July 21 to Aug. 5.

Winokur is also a part of the Letters to a Pre-Scientist program “so I get to be a pen-pal to an elementary school student to talk about science!”  In addition, she serves as the treasurer of the UC Davis Entomology Graduate Student Association.

Delighted to return to California after being on the East Coast, Winokur spends her leisure time outdoors hiking and backpacking “and exploring the beautiful places near Davis like the Lake Tahoe area and Yosemite. I taught backpacking and wilderness survival skills for Cornell Outdoor Education during college. Additionally, I'm a trivia nerd so I watch a lot of Jeopardy! and play pub trivia with my entomology colleagues weekly. I also enjoy drawing, reading, playing board games, and doing jigsaw puzzles. When I get the chance I enjoy traveling as well--I just returned from Belize and I'll be in Denmark in July!”

After finishing her Ph.D., Winokur plans to remain in academia, but “I'm unsure exactly what that will look like! I really enjoy research, teaching, and mentoring so I'd like to have a career where I can do all of these. I also plan to have a career where I can conduct translational research with broad global health implications, engage non-scientists, create tools to help decision makers mitigate vector-borne disease burden worldwide, and encourage interest and diversity in STEM.”