Peter Brabant, a doctoral student in the School of Biological Sciences, was recently awarded a Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Fellowship from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This coveted fellowship is the first time an Illinois State graduate student has received such an award from the NIH.

“These types of grants primarily go to students at large research intensive universities,” said John Baur, interim associate vice president for research. “The fact one was awarded to a graduate student at Illinois State, an institution which prides itself in excellence in both teaching and research, is quite remarkable and reflects well on Peter and the mentoring he is receiving in the School of Biological Sciences.”

Brabant, who is working toward his Ph.D. in biological sciences, works in the lab of Professor of Biology Steven Juliano. “If you want to know what brought me to Illinois State, Steve did. He allows us to work on concepts we find interesting,” said Brabant, who is pursuing research on mosquito larval habitats and how they affect production of adults.

“When you train graduate students, you are training the next generation of scientists,” said Juliano. “That means they need to have ideas, and have the freedom to pursue those ideas.”

Bugs caught Brabant’s interest from the moment he met them in college. He became an entomology major at the prestigious University of California at Riverside, and gained an interest in mosquitos. “I’ve always been fascinated by people’s reactions to mosquitos – how they can invoke so much hatred,” Brabant said.

While pursuing his masters’ at the University of Kentucky, he dedicated his work to the Asian Tiger mosquito – an invasive species and known carrier of diseases such as the West Nile virus.

image of Steven Juliano

Professor of Biology Steven Juliano

“When I saw the Kirschstein Fellowship, I thought it was tailor-made for Peter,” said Juliano. “Out of all the talented students in my lab, he is probably the most entomology-minded.”

The fellowship allows for four years of support through a graduate stipend and funds for travel. Brabant plans to travel throughout Illinois to examine aquatic larval habitats of Asian Tiger mosquitos. “The invasion of this species has been slow. It’s taken over Southern Illinois, is moving its way into the center and is almost absent north of Chicago. So it is still in the process of invading,” he said. “It will be interesting to examine that invasion, and how it affects native mosquitos.”

Securing funding can be the lifeblood of a lab, and Juliano said he works to find opportunities for students. “Part of my job as an advisor is to guide graduate students. That can mean placing grant applications in front of them and say, ‘You need to apply for this,’” said Juliano, who has received numerous grants from the NIH for his studies of mosquitos. “It sounds a bit harsh, but they generally do not have the experience looking for funding.

Brabant said the fellowship will also enable him to spend more time doing research. “I hope the research can be helpful to those who are looking to discourage the invasion of Asian Tiger mosquitos by providing information on where they live, and what kind of containers they are most likely to call home,” he said.

Along with the practical applications of helping to keep the growing Asian Tiger mosquito population in check, Juliano said Brabant’s work will also add to the general knowledge on ecology. “Even if these insects were not a threat to humans because they are vectors for disease, they would still be intriguing for a biologist to investigate,” said Juliano. “This research could answer some evolutionary questions about what characteristics of native species are being selected to survive along with the invaders.”

The work Brabant is doing is exactly what his lab is designed to do, said Juliano. “The goal of any lab is to help students be successful in their career, and lead the way for others.”

That recipe is what drew Brabant to Illinois State. “I looked at several doctoral programs, but I knew this was where I wanted to be,” said Brabant.