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USM Honors College Alumna, Whose Thesis is Published in Scientific Journal, Praises University’s “Vibrant Community of Scholars”

Thu, 06/15/2023 - 02:29pm | By: David Tisdale

USM Honors CollegeTaka Nah Jelah hopes her undergraduate research as an Honors College scholar at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) will play a role in the improvement of health outcomes in her native Cameroon, where malaria presents a chronic threat to its people.

The 2022 USM alumna, who earned a degree in biological sciences with minors in chemistry and psychology, was featured, along with her then faculty mentor Dr. Donald Yee in the May issue of Journal of Medical Entomology, published by Oxford University Press for the Entomological Society of America, with their co-authored article “Plant pollen as a resource affecting the development and survival of the mosquitoes Anopheles quadrimaculatus and Culex quinquefasciatus (Diptera: Culicidae)”

Nah Jelah, who begins her first year of medical school at Stony Brook University in August, was inspired to pursue her research goals at USM based on her experiences growing up in the southwest region of Cameroon, known for its warm and rainy climate that is ideal for the life cycle of mosquitoes, and transmission of mosquito-borne diseases.

She’s encouraged that the publication of her and Dr. Yee’s research, which was also the focus of her Honors College thesis, will result in its broader impact not only on the literature in this area but also for solutions to the challenges malaria presents in Cameroon that can “positively impact the body of knowledge that could ultimately aid in combating insect-borne diseases.”

“Throughout my childhood, I suffered from multiple episodes of malaria infections,” said Nah Jelah. “While I was fortunate enough to recover from them, many children and adults in my community continue to lose their lives to this disease.

“Although malaria is non-existent in the U.S., I aimed to undertake a research project relevant to my [then] current community, while also addressing the needs of my hometown in Cameroon.”

With the guidance of Dr. Yee, Nah Jelah examined the impact of plant pollen on the development of mosquito larvae. Previous studies conducted in Africa revealed a correlation between the expansion of corn cultivation and the incidence of malaria.

“Building upon this, we hypothesized that the presence of plant pollen, specifically corn and pine pollen, could potentially provide added advantages for mosquito larvae during their development,” Nah Jelah said.

A professor in the USM School of Biological, Environmental and Earth Sciences, Dr. Yee praised his former student as “enthusiastic and hard working.” “Her [research] project not only added to our existing scientific knowledge, but was relevant to her personally, being a native of Cameroon where malaria is a reality,” Dr. Yee said.

Nah Jelah’s first exposure to research at USM was in Dr. Hao Xu's laboratory in her freshman year; however, the Covid-19 pandemic abruptly ended that experience, but her initial exposure left a lasting impression on her. A year later, when on-campus activities gradually resumed, she joined Dr. Yee's Mosquito Lab as an undergraduate researcher for an independent project, which she said, “holds great sentimental value to me.”

“Dr. Yee guided me through the entire research process, teaching me new methods and providing the necessary resources,” Nah Jaleh said. “The Yee lab also had supportive graduate students who were always just a text message away.”

Nah Jelah completed high school in 2017; however, due to the Cameroonian civil war that began in November 2016, pursuing a college degree was problematic. But USM stood out to her as an affordable option for an international student. After enrolling at the university, she sought to maximize her academic and scholarship opportunities by joining the USM Honors College through its Keystone program, a move she said resulted in “invaluable” support and opportunities. 

Nah Jelah also served on the Academic Committee of the Honors College Leadership Council, which she said provided her with leadership opportunities and the chance to tutor and plan academic activities. She earned a Drapeau Center for Undergraduate Research Eagle SPUR grant, which partially funded her research project, and presented an abstract of her research at USM’s annual Undergraduate Research Symposium.

Her many accomplishments at the university earned her induction into the 2022 Student Hall of Fame Inductee, membership in USM’s 2022 Who’s Who, and recognition as a School of BEES Outstanding Graduate; she was also a USM Outstanding Freshman finalist.

“Being an Honors College Keystone Scholar came not only with a scholarship, but also mentorship and guidance throughout my academic journey, along with the rewarding experience of being part of a vibrant community of scholars engaged in remarkable research,” she said.