Tuesday, February 2, 2016

MSMU's superstar scientist - an update

Sr. Mary Gerald Leahy, CSJ, in her laboratory on a postdoctoral
 fellowship at Harvard University in 1967.
Editor's note: Recent global concerns over the massive outbreaks of the Zika virus in Latin America and elsewhere -- and its tragic outcome, thousands of newborns suffering from microencephaly -- remind us of the seminal research by Sr. Mary Gerald Leahy, CSJ, whose work in the 1960s and 1970s focused on interfering with the reproductive cycle of the deadly Aedes aegypti mosquito.  
A. aegypti, called the deadliest animal in the world, is behind the current zika outbreak. The mosquitoes' reproductive cycle is again the focus of intense research, this time through genetic manipulation to kill the insect before it is old enough to reproduce. It's the latest version with modern tools of the approach taken by Sr. Gerald.
For those interested in her work, list of some of her publications appears below. Visit the University Archives at Chalon for further information or to read the articles.
ONE OF THE VERY BEST PHOTOS in the College Archives is this one, a beautifully composed and lighted print in black and white, which is just the right medium for its subject -- a nun in the traditional religious habit of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and a serious-looking microscope.

This isn't just any nun, however. This is the brilliant Sister Mary Gerald Leahy, CSJ, of the biology faculty of Mount St. Mary's College from the 1940s through the early 1980s. More than a professor, she was a world-renowned researcher whose work with insect reproduction took her from Africa to Asia to Eastern Europe. Governments from Canberra to Kenya sought her help in pursuit of a way to halt the spread of deadly mosquito- and tick-borne diseases.

We got to spend the day with her papers and scientific journal articles in the University Archives, writing up a "finding aid" that describes the contents of what we hold on the Chalon Campus. (If you're on campus and can get into the MSMU intranet, you can read the finding aid here, or contact us through the University Archives website.)

There's more to say about Sister Mary Gerald than will fit in a blog, but there are a couple of things worth sharing.  One was her commitment to research.

Later in her life, she recalled what was impressed on her while earning her doctorate at Notre Dame University: that Catholic higher education had a profound responsibility to foster science and research.

She determined to return to the Mount and bring her undergraduate students into the research experience. She did so by creating "special problems" courses at Chalon that enabled young women to take part in her work, which was  funded by the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and World Health Organization.  That commitment to research continues today at the Mount.

The other thing we couldn't help but notice was Sister Mary Gerald's high level of achievement in an era when scientific careers for women were few and far between. But in that career she was also fulfilling the CSJ charism. As the primitive constitution states, members of the order are "to perform all the spiritual and corporal works of mercy of which woman is capable."

Well, this woman religious just happened to be a brilliant scientist. And surely preventing the spread of terrible scourges like zika, yellow or hemorrhagic fevers fits the category of corporal work of mercy. In this Year of Mercy, it is a reminder of the many ways of love for the "dear neighbor" without distinction.

List of articles archived at MSMU:

1. Leahy, M. G., & Craig, G. B. (1967, March 30). "Barriers to Hybridization Between Aedes Aegypti and Aedes Albopictus (Diptera: Culicidae)." Evolution, 21(1), 41-58.
2. Leahy, M. G. (1967, August). "Non-Specificity of the Male Factor Enhancing Egg-Laying in Diptera." Journal of Insect Physiology, 13(8), 1283-1292.
3. Leahy, M. G., & Craig, Jr., G. B. (1965, December). "Accessory Gland Substance as a Stimulant for Oviposition in Aedes Aegypti and A. Albopictus." Mosquito News, 25(4).
4. Leahy, M. G., & Lowe, M. L. (1967, January 15). "Purification of the Male Factor Increasing Egg Deposition in D. Melanogaster." Life Sciences, 6(2), 151-156.
5. Spielman, A., Leahy, M., & Skaff, V. (1967, June). "Seminal Loss in Repeatedly Mated Female Aedes Aegypti." Biological Bulletin, 132(3), 404-412.

More on Sr. Gerald Leahy at MSMU:

"Cue the swarming insects" - http://mountarchives.blogspot.com/2014/10/cue-swarming-insects.html
"The rattlesnake, our 'dear neighbor'" - http://mountarchives.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-rattlesnake-our-dear-neighbor.html