Shelby Hutton pours fleas from Madagascar out of a vial, each hanging on to the others in a huge ball. Yes, the NAU junior biology major says, insects can be “gross,” but she is fascinated by the dynamic and complex role they play as vectors carrying plague to human hosts: “I think diseases are really cool, in a sadistic way, the way they infect people. It’s an interesting system, and the fact that it does affect so many people inspires me to do research on these bugs.” Painstakingly, Hutton studies 80 fleas. She discovers that each one carries the same genetic mutation, which enables them to resist pesticides and live on to potentially spread plague.

Hutton’s job is to create assays—experiments—to screen fleas so that the institute in Madagascar that partners with NAU’s world-renowned Pathogen and Microbiome Institute (PMI) can develop better solutions to control the flea population.

At PMI, Hutton researches fleas and microbes, some of the tiniest living things. By doing so, she seeks solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems—a rare opportunity for an undergraduate and one that helped her decide to be a veterinary microbiologist: “My research experience has defined what I want my career to be. Many places that hire undergraduate researchers, they’re cleaning dishware. We get to be almost in charge of some of these projects. We’re the ones who are in the lab doing the data generation. It gives you a sense of ownership of what you’re doing.

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