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From Moths to Mosquitos

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Nicole Gordon

Biology alumna tackles environmental health in the Denver metro area

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"My time at DU showed me where my passions truly lie," says Kylee Grenis, who holds a newly-minted doctorate degree in ecology and evolutionary biology.

Grenis is currently employed by Tri-Country Health, which serves more than 1.3 million people in Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties. As part of the agency's environmental health surveillance team, she's helping monitor mosquito populations in order to protect residents from West Nile virus.

"I get to cruise around, set mosquito traps, pick them up the next day, and then spend a day or two in the lab counting the mosquitos and putting together reports," Grenis says. "It's a nice balance between working in the field and the office."

"I really enjoy doing work that has an impact on people and I also really enjoy insects." Kylee Grenis, Graduate of the Department of Biological Sciences

Grenis graduated in May 2016 after successfully defending her thesis, which took a close look at the impact of light pollution on moths. Working with Professor Shannon Murphy in the Department of Biological Sciences, she ran a series of experiments measuring how moths on the Front Range respond to two different types of light pollution – luminance and illuminance.

Luminance is a measure of light reflected off of a given surface. Within the context of light pollution, it’s known as sky glow – the diffuse illumination of the night sky from both artificial urban lighting and natural atmospheric factors. Illuminance, meanwhile, is the amount of light provided from a point light source such as a streetlight.

After taking a variety of variables into account – vegetation, habitat size – Grenis found that, while numbers and species of moths increase with the presence of point light sources, moths overall decrease as sky glow increases.

She also looked at whether moth larvae – or caterpillars – are impacted by streetlights, finding that caterpillars under lights do no grow as large as those not subjected to lights. Plants that grow under streetlights are tougher, she found, making it more difficult for caterpillars to eat them.

"Despite the fact that illuminance give moths a short-term boost, the light pollution from streetlights is overall bad for moth communities," she summarizes.

Kylee Grenis
Kylee Grenis

While working on her degree, Grenis discovered that, though she enjoyed basic research, she had an even stronger interest in applied science. This discovery led her to Tri-County Health, where her environmental surveillance efforts help the department decide when to alert cities to a West Nile threat and whether or not to pursue mitigation strategies against mosquitos.

"The public health aspect appeals to me as I really enjoy doing work that has an impact on people," she says. "And I also really enjoy insects."