Dr. Andrew Greenlee: Do you know what a bedbug looks like?

By BRiDGE Committee Member Benjamin Keisling

Do you know what a bedbug looks like?

That’s the first question that BRIDGE Scholar Dr. Andrew Greenlee posed to the audience at his BRiDGE2ImpactsPresentation, titled “BRiDGE2Impacts: Strange Bedfellows? Creating an Interdisciplinary Space for Research on Housing Policy and Bedbugs.” A few people in the room could correctly identify the pest’s profile, but that is not the case for the vast majority of Americans. Nevertheless, it’s a skill that is becoming increasingly important for residents of Chicago, where Dr. Greenlee’s research is centered.

Dr. Greenlee studies the mobility of Chicago residents using data mined for the purpose of sending junk mail. He uses those data to study how Chicagoans move within and between neighborhoods, and compares the trends with socioeconomic, demographic, and political patterns. His work highlights spatial “clusters” – persistent pathways between certain neighborhoods which share sociological characteristics. So how did he end up talking to us about bedbugs all morning?

Dr. Greenlee at UMass. Photo by Matthew Medeiros (Communications Manager, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences).

When people move, they bring lots of things they want with them — their furniture, clothes and appliances, for example — but other unwanted things sometimes tag along for the ride. When Dr. Greenlee compared the clusters that his work identified with reported bedbug violations, where a resident has called an inspector to report a pest infestation, and found a strong correlation. Communities of color had far more violations, and communities where more of the properties were owned rather than rented had far fewer. This observation led Dr. Greenlee to forge new collaborations that were the subject of his BRIDGE2Impacts presentation.

In Dr. Greenlee’s experience, interdisciplinary linkages are not only necessary to solve certain problems, but they also open up completely new avenues for scientific research that would be unimaginable for researchers from a single field. For example, Dr. Greenlee found that his spatial clusters were of immense interest to bedbug population biologists, who wondered if there could be measurable genetic mutations unique to the pests in neighborhoods where people tended to stay, or measurable genetic mixing between populations in areas where there was substantial inter-neighborhood mobility. These conversations even sparked in getting additional stakeholders involved in the work — they eventually recruited pest management specialists to collect specimens from different neighborhood which they could analyse. In Dr. Greenlee’s words, working beyond the boundaries of his own specialty gave him the opportunity “to reflect and think about why other scientific communities would care about a certain issue.” Some of his advice was practical, too: the bedbug collaboration was largely accomplished with a grant that required all of the participants to come together for a week, “locked in a room” with access to scholarly resources and food, and focus on their shared research.

Students listening to the presentation by Dr. Greenlee. Photo by Matthew Medeiros (Communications Manager, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences).

Dr. Greenlee’s presentation invited all of us to think creatively about intersections between our research and the interests of other scientists and stakeholders. Although his interdisciplinary work continues to find traction in scholarly journals across disciplines, his research is also deeply engaged with the communities it focuses on. He is still looking for ways to get the results of this work out to stakeholders that don’t have access to peer-reviewed journal articles, and especially for ways to display the information in an accessible, visually appealing way, so that anyone with a smartphone or computer can interact with it. In that way, maybe someday we will all be able to identify exactly what a bedbug looks like.


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