Growing up in Leeds, Alexis White wanted a career in math.

What she got was a career in ticks.

White, a doctoral student at Old Dominion University in Virginia, researches the little blood suckers that are increasingly plaguing the region. Her goal: control them.

And if a tick-killing robot helps, all the better.

Name: Alexis White

Age: 26

Hometown: Leeds

Current town: Norfolk, Virginia

Job: Ecological science Ph.D. student

How did you get involved with ticks? It was definitely a trap. I have always been interested in math and biology ​and found out that ​you can do both! So the summer between my junior and senior year at Unity College, I was able to go to Old Dominion University and work on the tick surveillance project.​ It was the perfect balance between fieldwork and mathematics.

Did you have personal tick experience? Growing up, I only remember being bitten once by a tick and being wicked grossed out by the ectoparasite stuck on my side. But growing up in New England, I do know many people, including family members, who have tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease.

What do you hope comes of your research? My research is looking at how we can control tick populations. I hope to help provide insight into the unique relationship between chickens and ticks, and of course learn more about the efficacy of our tick-killing robot.

How does one conduct research on ticks? There are so many ways! We have an underlying project in our lab that looks at when different species of ticks are up looking for hosts year-round. But from this one study we have a ton of different projects that grow from it, including my research on control methods.

Tell us more about the tick-killing robot. Does it have lasers? Please tell me it has lasers! No, I’m sorry, no lasers. That might make it more marketable though! TickBot is a collaborative project between ODU and the Virginia Military Institute. They work on the robotics of it and then we field test in different environments. The cool thing about the robot is that it can protect an area for 24 hours from tick encounters. It lures ticks to it, and when they come in contact with the pesticide-treated cloth attached to the back of the robot, they die. It’s very unique and wicked cool to work with!

Ever carry home your, um, work? One rule in the lab is to not be your own data point. But sometimes I am — it is very rare, though. Over my four years with the tick lab, I have had less than a handful of ticks on me because we go in the field with the right gear.

What’s the best way people can protect themselves from the little blood suckers? Be aware that ticks do exist in almost every habitat, and pointy tweezers are the best way to remove a tick despite all the “fancy” methods. If a tick does bite you, it is easier to test the tick than it is to test you, so it is helpful to hang onto your new friend in a baggie in the freezer with a date. When you are outside, wear light-colored clothing and tuck your pants into your socks and shirt into your pants. Ticks crawl up so this helps them not get under your layers. I also use permethrin to treat my clothes and shoes. It really is the best thing I have found for protecting myself in the field from tick bites.

What’s the coolest/weirdest/most unusual thing about ticks? Ticks are nearly indestructible! They can live for months underwater.

How do people react when you tell them what you research? It’s almost better that I work on math and ticks, I can scare people away quite well. But either folks are very confused as to why I would do what I do or they are very captivated at the uniqueness of our lab. I’m very lucky to be a part of a great research team.

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Alexis White

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