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Jan. 25, 2017

Layne Cameron: The reluctant traveler

Jan. 25, 2017

Layne Cameron is a media communications manager and Spartan science storyteller in Communications and Brand Strategy at MSU. He has more than 20 years of higher education public relations, publishing, magazine and newspaper experience. He has written three books, co-authored two others, and has contributed more than 300 articles to many national publications. As MSU’s lead science writer, he seeks out the best research-, grant- and student-centered stories that help move the university’s strategic plan forward.

I’m sitting in a courtyard outside of a kindergarten, a reluctant traveler covering a story for MSU. It’s recess, and I’m basking in the blend of joyous voices and the warm breeze rustling the trees of Shazai Island, just outside of Guanzhou, China.

Enhancing this tropical scene is the glorious absence of another sound — the buzzing of mosquitoes. That’s because there are none.

Children are running care-free on the playground as adults amble down the narrow street on bikes and scooters, all wearing T-shirts and shorts and nary a one using Deet or any other bug spray.

The person they can thank for this is Zhiyong Xi, MSU microbiologist and molecular geneticist. His dedication to eliminate the mosquitoes that carry malaria, dengue fever and Zika virus is why I’m here.

I’m waiting for Xi to finish up his interview with two reporters from CNN. After they are done speaking with him, they’ll meet with representatives from Yucatan, Mexico, who are visiting with Xi’s team, partners from Sun Yat-sen University, to duplicate their successful mosquito-reduction efforts.

Xi also is the director of the Sun Yat-sen-MSU Joint Center of Vector Control for Tropical Diseases. In his mosquito factory, Xi’s team weekly breeds millions of male mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia bacteria, a strain that is naturally found in many species of mosquitoes but is not dangerous to humans. When the infected males are released into the wild, they mate with females, which renders them sterile.

The team already has conducted two successful field trials, one of which reduced Shazai’s mosquito population by more than 90 percent. The team’s natural, non-GMO approach also has been well received by local residents, as demonstrated by the fact that more than 90 percent of them approve of the work.

As I wait for Xi, I recall the previous day’s lunch. Representatives from Xi’s lab, MSU and Yucatan filled two, large round tables, sampling many dishes. The excitement of trying new foods was rivaled by the lively discussion, fleshing out the details of their budding collaboration.

Hearing the partnership come to life and listening to the children’s unbridled laughter erases our typhoon-delayed travel. (The storm left us stranded in Shanghai for 24 hours.) We didn’t check into our Guanzhou hotel until 3 a.m., and later that day, I did my best Rip Van Winkle impersonation, turning an afternoon nap into a 12-hour-plus coma.

Personal challenges wash away as we attend to the CNN crew’s needs. After they get their story, we wave goodbye and take our turn. We switch on our cameras, attach a microphone to Xi and wander through the village. We grab footage of the team releasing mosquitoes, asking questions of Xi and his team as they work. I don’t know what I expected, but when people release hundreds of mosquitoes and you’re standing nearby, you tend to get swarmed — a shocker, right?

As a small squadron of mosquitoes lands on me, I instinctively swat at them. Xi laughs, mock chiding me, saying that I should stop because these are expensive, important mosquitos.

While we share a laugh, I notice a small boy approaching us with his father. They are curious as to why anyone would want to release even more mosquitoes. He’s shy, staying within arm’s reach of his father’s pant leg. I smile, ask permission to take his picture and crouch down to his level with my camera.

He’s puzzled as to why I would want a photo of him. He sees a stranger from another country with a camera. I see a child whose life will be dramatically different, at least in terms of exposure to deadly diseases, from his father’s because he won’t have to live with the fear of contracting dengue fever, malaria or Zika virus.

I smile as I stand because I know the magnitude of this research is being documented in prose, photos and video.

My content feeling stems from seeing MSU’s amazing work firsthand and meeting the people it benefits. While I may be a reluctant traveler, I’m an all-in storyteller, completely in tune with this moment and basking in every detail my senses can detect.

When my senses tingle full-tilt like this, I realize how much I love my job as a Spartan science storyteller.


Watch the video produced during the trip

Check out CNN's coverage