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Park People: Elin Cunningham, Oxitec

Published on 27 March 2024

In this month’s Park People, the Milton Park team learns how missing out on veterinary school, two rounds of malaria and a life dodging crocodiles enabled Oxitec’s Elin Cunningham to come back with a bite.

Hi Elin, please tell us bit about Oxitec in your own words…

Oxitec is at the forefront of sustainable biological insect control technology. We’re on a mission to tackle mosquitoes transmitting human diseases, as well as pests that cause devastation to crops and livestock worldwide.

I spend most of my time working with Aedes and Anopheles mosquitoes. It’s incredibly rewarding to work alongside talented colleagues from around the world to create solutions that combat the spread of disease by invasive mosquitos.

What inspired you to pursue a career in biotechnology?

My lifelong dream was to be a vet, but when I missed the grades for vet school, I had to change tack. I began studying Bioveterinary Science instead, and soon discovered a whole new world of scientific exploration beyond veterinary practices.

I spent considerable time studying parasites in the laboratory at Jersey Zoo, thoroughly enjoying the blend of fieldwork and subsequent analysis of samples brought back to the lab.

How did you achieve your current role as a scientist?

Following a placement year working in South Africa and Jersey Zoo, I pursued a Masters in Entomology (the study of insects) and landed on my feet at Oxitec. I spent a couple of months learning the ropes as a Lab Technician, before accepting a role as a Scientist, working with Aedes aegypti (arguably the best mosquito to work with, though some of my colleagues may disagree!).

Since then, I’ve enjoyed broadening my insect rearing knowledge, honing my data handling skills by learning various coding languages and experiencing a diverse range of insects.

What do you find rewarding about your job?

The overreliance on chemical insecticides has created a huge problem of resistance across the world, notwithstanding the fact that mass chemical application affects a massive amount of non-target insect species.

Biological control and integrated pest management is something I spent a lot of time studying during my master’s degree, and it’s wonderful to work on the frontline of this.

Are you working on any exciting projects?

 I’m working on an exciting project supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that aims to stop the spread of malaria-transmitting mosquitoes.

I recently stepped into the world of developing a solution for the Anopheles stephensi smosquito, a huge invasive carrier of malaria in the Horn of Africa. Having contracted malaria twice during my time in Mozambique, it feels very personal to work actively on creating and validating solutions for this major threat.

Tell us about your upcoming rowing expedition…

Growing up travelling the world with my family, I fell in love with Africa while living in Mozambique. For years, I’ve followed Row Zambezi’s expeditions to raise money for clean water, and as the captain of the Abingdon Rowing Club Women’s Squad, I’ve dreamed of joining them. I applied to join the final leg of Row Zambezi’s expedition and was overjoyed to be selected.

Marrying my love for rowing and Africa, I can’t wait to challenge myself to 100km of rowing down the Zambezi River every day for two weeks. Though I haven’t missed dodging crocodiles and hippos in Mozambique, I look forward to finding insects along the way. As we plan to camp mainly in untouched wilderness, I expect the mosquitoes will find me too!

What do you enjoy about Milton Park?

As a bunch of Entomologists, it’s a great location for us. We love exploring the environmentally friendly initiatives at the Park and seeing which insects we can find on our lunch breaks.

The solitary bee houses, wildflower strips and garden plots host a huge range of wildlife. I’m extremely proud that our own plot won the Gold Biodiversity Award this year – I believe manure from the horses I care for took us over the line…

Support Elin’s Row Zambezi Challenge

Click below to support Elin’s rowing expedition and raise money for clean water.

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