Leslie Vosshall is stalking a mosquito. We’re in a small room that’s full of the little blood-suckers, which are being deliberately bred and raised. Most are safely trapped behind plastic and muslin but one plucky insect has escaped, and we’re stuck on this side of the room’s heavy door until we can find it.
It’s not easy for a human to find a mosquito that doesn’t want to be found, but a mosquito can locate us quite easily. It’s a human-seeking machine, sculpted by evolution to track the warmth of our bodies, the carbon dioxide in our breath, the smelly chemicals dissipating from our skin, and even our appearance. Vosshall has spent eight years deciphering how these creatures process these cues, in a bid to befuddle their senses and create a better generation of insect repellents. It’s a quest that has been beset by surprises and failures, which have left her with a newfound appreciation for these annoying insects—even the one that, finally, she finds and kills.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” she says, holding up its tiger-striped carcass on her blue-painted nail. It’s flattened and contorted in an almost-cartoonish way. In far better condition is the second loose mosquito that flies past our faces. “Jesus,” says Vosshall. “Let’s get out of here.”
We adjourn to her office, which feels not unlike a MOMA gift shop, full of bold prints, neon colors, and funky objets d’art. One white wall has been covered in orange and green Sharpie scribbling. Vosshall herself is wearing a white, brown, and orange 1960s-print dress; she is both chic and low-key, fiercely intelligent and self-effacing. “I started working on mosquitoes in earnest in 2008,” she tells me. “It was a real pain in the ass. Getting it working was unbelievably hard.”