Why you should care

Because this Columbia University astrophysicist thinks understanding the cosmos could help cure disease.

It would be a tall order for anyone. At Columbia University, Szabolcs Marka is conducting research he hopes will end malaria as we know it worldwide. He’s also got an eye on trying to cure Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders. Not bad for someone who’s just 45 years old.

Except the story line gets more compelling. Marka isn’t a physician — he doesn’t even hold a biology degree. By training, he’s an astrophysicist. That means that lately, for example, he’s been investigating the birth and death of black holes. And yet this associate professor believes there are some curious ties between the technology used to stargaze and the prevention of diseases on the third planet from the sun.

Marka believes we can harness the optics technology used in astrophysics instruments like telescopes to develop rays of lights or “light curtains” that can block the paths of mosquitoes, including those bearing malaria. He’s also developing special touchscreens to study insect nerve systems, potentially yielding insights into Alzheimer’s disease. This knowledge, in turn, could improve image processing and other systems for analyzing astrophysics data.

Of course, this all in the experimental stage. But the signs of an up-and-comer are all there: he has already received a $1 million grant from the Gates Foundation and published research papers in respected journals that have attracted the attention of his colleagues — in both fields of study. “He combines immense curiosity and enthusiasm with a gift for solving problems,” wrote Chad Finley, a physicist at Stockholm University, in an email. “He goes from new idea to its full realization in a remarkably short time.”

Fundamental science is the most beautiful thing. … We should be using it for something that makes a difference here on Earth.

Szabolcs Marka, associate professor of physics, Columbia University

Marka’s research represents the growing cross-pollination between medicine and the astronomical sciences. Michelle Borkin, a computer scientist at the University of British Columbia, founded the Astronomical Medicine Project at Harvard University to develop software and other tools for astronomical and medical imaging after advising a colleague to use brain-scanning software to understand a supernova explosion. Meanwhile, the burgeoning field of astrobiology draws on astronomy, molecular biology and other disciplines to search for extraterrestrial life.

Although still enraptured with heavenly phenomena after several years of studying astrophysics, Marka wants to pursue research that makes an earthly impact. “Fundamental science is the most beautiful thing on Earth,” he says. “But when we have this tremendous experience … we should be using it for something that makes a difference here on Earth.”

When we meet up with Marka, we find him sporting all the telltale signs of an absentminded stargazer, with disheveled buckwheat hair and an untucked shirt. But he quickly displays the glowing bedside manner of your favorite doctor, smiling boyishly and cracking jokes in a rolling Eastern European accent. Today, he lives with his wife — also a physicist — and their four kids in New York’s Upper West Side. But he grew up poor in communist Hungary, in Nyíregyháza, a trading hub where he indulged his curiosity in market stalls, marveling at textiles, leather and crystals from Transylvanian mines.

The Hungarian government, though repressive, had expanded educational opportunities for the poor, allowing Marka to attend a free after-school astronomy class. Unable to afford a telescope, he scrounged for materials around the house and built one himself. “For a 12-year-old kid, it’s a transformative experience … I realized I can go from nothing to my dreams.”

Marka went on to study physics at Kossuth Lajos University, where a dorm mate died of malaria after returning from fieldwork in Uganda. “When you are younger, it’s not common that someone in your proximity dies,” he says quietly. “That really put malaria on my radar. The more you learn about it, the more you realize that in some places it’s just horrible.”

As a physics doctoral student at Vanderbilt University, he says he grew restless as he leafed through nuclear physics textbooks swimming with numbers. Craving uncertainty, he eventually settled on astrophysics. Rather than searching for numbers to describe known physical phenomena, he wanted to detect the phenomena himself, specifically gravitational waves — tiny ripples in space-time — from the collision of two black holes, predicted by Einstein, but never directly measured.

Marka reconsidered his research again when a colleague saw him monitoring a particle accelerator. “He said, ‘This is really interesting, but it doesn’t help anybody.’ That made me think.”

He’s not afraid to go into areas he doesn’t already fully understand ….

Richard Mann, professor of biochemistry & molecular biophysics, Columbia University

He remembered his dorm mate and mulled over how he could apply the lasers used for detecting gravitational waves to human health. Something clicked: Why not create a laser barricade to zap malaria-carrying mosquitoes?

He rounded up his kids to collect mosquito larvae from a park along the Hudson River, while the lab he led at Columbia engineered a shield of infrared light at the end of a long tube. Once the mosquitoes matured, the researchers released them into the tube. What they saw next surprised them; instead of frying, the insects ricocheted off the shield. “If they want to, they could just fly through,” Marka explained. “But they just don’t like it.”

The team later arranged the lights in the shape of a curtain that could barricade doorways, windows and other entryways. Multiple shields could also be positioned to corral the mosquitoes toward a trap. Also in the works: a rod that can be grazed against standing water surfaces or hung over rainwater collection barrels, emitting ultrasound capable of killing mosquito larvae. Of course, it’s still too early to tell whether these innovations will prove effective. But Marka says that a trial of the light curtain funded by the Gates Foundation will launch in Tanzania next year.

That Marka has zero biology training speaks to his fearlessness, wrote Columbia University biochemist Richard Mann in an email. “He’s not afraid to go into areas he doesn’t already fully understand, which gives him an outsider’s perspective and license to ask naive — but revealing — questions.”

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