Meet the Scholars: Austin Compton

Meet the Scholars: Austin Compton
January 15, 2020 11:12 am


Austin Compton is a PhD student in biochemistry at Virginia Tech. He is a part of Health Policy Research Scholars Cohort 2017.

Before we begin, tell us a little bit about yourself and what your research interests are.

My research focuses on understanding the fundamental biology of disease-transmitting mosquitoes by sequencing their genetic material and changing it using genome editing to understand the function of certain genes. The goal of my work is to supply mosquito and genome researchers with useful information that can be used to aid in developing novel strategies for controlling mosquito-borne infectious diseases.

What’s the story behind why you’re doing what you’re doing?

I began my scientific career with a deep passion for learning, which later evolved into a focused interest in genetics. I am very fortunate that I landed a work-study position as an undergraduate in the lab where I am currently doing my graduate studies. It was here that I reared several mosquito species and developed a foundation for understanding the threat that mosquito-borne diseases pose to humankind. I decided to pursue my interest in genetics to join the worldwide effort to prevent the deadly and morbid diseases mosquitoes transmit.

Tell us about a project you are currently working on that you are excited about.

I am finishing a project that involved sequencing the genome of Anopheles albimanus, the New World malaria mosquito, which impacts the neotropical regions of Central America stretching from the southern parts of the United States to Peru and the Caribbean islands. I am very excited about this project because the genome assembly that resulted from this work will be one of the most complete genomes produced for any mosquito and has the potential to uncover the genetic basis of many disease-relevant traits, such as insecticide resistances and disease vectoring capacity. Additionally, it will lead to a more complete understanding of mosquito biology and the impacts that something like genetic manipulation might have, perhaps proactively avoiding control measure shortcomings.

For people unfamiliar with your research area, what is one piece of information you think is important for them to know? 

I think it is important that people understand the difference between disease control and mosquito species eradication. Although mosquitoes are annoying to deal with, my research only aims to reduce the burden of disease in regions prone to them, not to eradicate the mosquito entirely, which may lead to adverse consequences.

Who is a researcher you admire and why?

I admire the pioneering work of the researchers involved in developing the World Health Organization’s Guidance framework for testing of genetically modified mosquitoes, specifically Stephanie James of the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, for very clearly outlining regulatory mechanisms, precautions to take, and challenges involved in mosquito control.

How has being an HPRS Scholar helped you during your time as a doctoral student?

I am very fortunate to be a part of the HPRS program, as it has provided me with a unique set of tools for seeing the issues my research aims to overcome through a health equity lens and has guided my development as a well-rounded researcher. I am now better able to identify inequities facing the field and am more comfortable communicating my work to people outside of my field. Additionally, HPRS has helped me understand my own strengths as a leader and has given me avenues for improvement. If not for this invaluable opportunity, I doubt I would have gained these tools and had these experiences.

In the RWJF HPRS program, we have worked with you to help you think further about using your research to develop policy. If you could use your research to change any policy, what policy would it be? 

I am interested in using my research experience and my HPRS toolkit to help shape multinational organizations’ governance of mosquito control efforts. Rapidly advancing technologies have inevitably led to the development of novel control strategies, such as gene-drive mosquitoes. However, some reflection and research is required to develop acceptable and sustainable regulatory mechanisms for these technologies.

OK, here’s a fun question to wrap things up. If you were stranded on a desert island, what three items would you want to have with you? 

If I were stranded on a desert island (and wanted to stay there), the three items I would choose to take are: 1) a fishing pole for food, 2) a big box of matches, and 3) a water purification system.

Thank you so much for your time! 

Austin’s bio