Dr El Hadji Amadou Niang from Senegal’s Université Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD) is a medical entomologist studying the role of insects in transmitting diseases to humans.

El Hadji was awarded an AREF Research Development Fellowship in 2015, which he used to learn cutting-edge techniques for mapping the genome of mosquitoes, working with Dr David Weetman at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in the UK.

Globally, malaria is still a vast health problem. In their 2019 World Malaria Report, The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated there were 228 million cases of malaria worldwide, causing 405,000 deaths in 2018 alone. Africa accounts for 93 per cent of cases and 94 per cent of deaths.

There has been significant progress in preventing and treating malaria. However, the most effective solutions have sought to control mosquito numbers and reduce their lifespan, in order to prevent them from transmitting the parasite – and this is where El Hadji’s research has focused.

He studies the different species of mosquito, their distribution, behaviour and habitats, and resistance to insecticides. “There are 21 different species of mosquito in Senegal, yet only seven of these transmit malaria. We need to know more about them to target the malaria-carrying species more effectively,” he says.

El Hadji works with others around the country to trap and examine mosquitoes, documenting the species and whether they carry malaria parasites or not.

Using laboratory techniques developed during his placement in the UK, El Hadji gathers molecular and genetic information about the mosquitoes to understand how they become resistant to various insecticides. “If we knew this, maybe we could combine effective mosquito control tools to stop them surviving and becoming harder to kill.”

Prior to his fellowship, the biggest challenges facing El Hadji were the lack of available funding opportunities, and competition with more experienced and established researchers.

“The fellowship was a huge stepping-stone for me. It helped me build new skills in advanced molecular biology and genetic data analysis, as well as improving my grant-writing and communicating skills, widening my research networks, and strengthening my research portfolio, which now includes more than 25 research publications.

“Most importantly I now have the connections and confidence I need to secure my own grants, including a training fellowship from the Wellcome Trust in 2020.

“I’m an independent scientist leading my own research group in Senegal, but I’m also part of a much wider research network collaborating closely with partners across the continent - including institutions in The Gambia, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Mali, as well as further afield, in the UK and France.”

El Hadji is currently investigating whether mosquitoes’ gut bacteria could disrupt the development of the malaria parasite and if so, whether infecting wild mosquitoes with certain bacteria could break the life-cycle of malaria.

“The challenge is that we’re not shooting at a fixed target. Mosquitoes evolve and develop resistance to insecticides, so I’m exploring whether we can harness bacteria to fight against the parasite. The data we’ve recently published in Scientific Reports (April 2020) and the International Journal of Tropical Insect Science (March 2020) will help Senegal's National Malaria Control Programme (NMCP) to better target and control mosquitoes in areas where rates of malaria are high."

I’m so thankful to AREF and would urge people to support them in any way they can. The charity is giving genuinely life-changing opportunities to young African scientists. Without them, it’s doubtful if I or most of my peers would be pursuing medical research and tackling health problems in Africa.