Fighting malaria: Ten Kley takes senior research to Africa

Maddy Ten Kley in Zambia

At the root of every great idea, is a purpose.


In 2011, Doane biology professor Brad Elder’s purpose was to positively impact lives of college students, molding young minds into the next crop of doctors, biologists, physical therapists, and chemists. However, after an epiphany one night, his purpose became much larger.


On this fall night, Elder and his wife were entertaining the idea of making cloth bags as a fundraiser for the Roots and Shoots club at Doane, an organization that plans and implements service-learning projects that promote care and concern for the animals, environment, and community.


After discovering that the time and labor to make these bags would not be worth the return, Elder began exploring different craft projects to raise money, and came across a video on how to make a messenger bag out of plastic garbage bags. The video sparked an idea for Elder.  What if he could make mosquito nets out of bags like this, to help Africans combat the deadly disease of malaria?


Malaria, a disease caused by parasites that are transmitted to people through the bites of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes, killed 445,000 people in 2016, according to the World Health Organization. According to the WHO, roughly 90% of malaria cases are found in Africa.


For the next six months, Elder worked tirelessly to come up with a solution to fight this disease. What he found was a very specific, yet mildly labor intensive plan. By taking plastic bags used at grocery stores or retail outlets, Elder found that he could take a few plastic bags, fold them together to create a strong foundation, iron them together, and punch holes large enough to allow air flow but small enough that mosquitos would not be able to fly through.


It may sound simple, but coming up with a way to punch these holes through the netting was a very detailed plan. Elder found that the holes needed to be two millimeters or smaller in diameter. To design a needle to make the perfect-sized hole, Elder said the nail needs to be cut very specifically, and then could be placed inside a sewing machine to punch the holes.


After coming up with the formula and creating a number of these mosquito nets, Elder’s next step was to put them to the test. In Kenya, Elder went to the village of Karandi, about 150 miles north of Nairobi, where there is no running water and no electricity.


“We felt like if these could work there, we could make it anywhere,” he said. “It ended up being very successful.”


Over time, the project has transformed. Elder has been to Africa many times, training people in the community on how to make these nets, with the vision that some could sell the nets and turn it into a business.


That’s where Maddy Ten Kley ’19 came in. Elder’s mosquito nets had turned into nets to be placed into windows, and he asked Maddy if she would be interested in exploring this further for her senior research.


“I have a passion for helping others and I wanted to get involved,” she said.


Just like that, Elder now had student assistance on this project for the first time.


Elder and Maddy traveled to Zambia this summer for two weeks, allowing Maddy to conduct research by interviewing locals to see if this is something they are interested in.


Combining her biology and sociology senior research, Maddy worked with sociology professor Danelle DeBoer on developing a survey tool to use in Zambia.


Her hypothesis -- exploring the possibilities of setting up natives of Africa to run their own business, selling these nets.


Maddy says that while malaria is a very preventable deadly disease in Africa, many residents are not overly concerned about protecting themselves from it.


With a translator by her side, Maddy found that while people are interested, it depends on what part of the city or area you’re in. Because sewing machines are not cheap, it is a big financial investment for someone in Africa. For context - a standard sewing machine might cost around $100, which could be 2-3 months salary for someone in Zambia.


“One of the poorer areas we went to had no bed nets, no mosquito screens, and they told us they don’t perceive a problem with mosquitoes,” Maddy said. “Flies were all over us in the room. A business wouldn’t succeed there because people wouldn’t pay for the nets.”


As Elder puts it, “it’s kind of like texting and driving. You can show people bad pictures but people still do it. We can show people that their family could die from malaria, but taking preventative steps to fight the disease is not a priority for everyone.”


However, Elder and Maddy did find one person who became very interested and has already received a microloan to make mosquito screens as a business. It’s a small step for their larger vision in mind, showing that the research is paying off.


“The experience has been eye-opening and rewarding,” Maddy said. “I’m one of the first Doane students to do senior research overseas and I hope my story inspires others to get out of their comfort zone and try new things to see if they can make a difference.”


Maddy will continue to work alongside Elder and DeBoer on the project this year and is scheduled to present her findings at a sociological symposium in Lincoln on November 8th.


Maddy’s hopeful that the research she is doing at Doane can make a global impact.


“I want to save lives,” she said. “I just want to make a difference.”


For more information on the project, visit Elder's website for additional details.