Eamonn Keogh, a professor of computer science and engineering in the Bourns College of Engineering, was recently awarded a $100,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for work that uses modified laser pointers purchased at a 99 cent store to combat malaria.

Keogh’s project, “Counting and Classifying Insects with Ultra-cheap Sensors,” is one of 65 grants from more than 2,400 proposals for the fifth funding round of Grand Challenge Explorations, an initiative to help scientists around the world explore bold and largely unproven ways to improve health in developing countries. The grants were provided to scientists in 16 countries on five continents.

Keogh’s grant will pair him with entomologists to improve the understanding of the movements of mosquitoes. The aim of the research is to help scientists better combat malaria, a disease that kills nearly 1 million people worldwide each year.

It is the latest interdisciplinary project he has taken on since arriving at UCR via an unconventional route.

At 15, Keogh dropped out of high school in Dublin, Ireland, and worked painting cars. Four years later, he won a visa lottery and came to the United States.

While working full time at various mechanical jobs, including building and designing mountain bikes, restoring vintage cars, and painting carousel horses, Keogh worked his way through MiraCosta Community College and California State University, San Marcos, and completed his studies at the UC Irvine, where he received his Ph.D. in computer science in 2001.

He joined UC Riverside that same year. He has worked with anthropologists, cardiologists, nematologists, herpetologists, astronomers and entomologists. He focuses on data mining, the science of extracting information from large datasets, and he has worked with data as diverse as 15th century historical manuscripts, primate skulls, graffiti and medical data.

To receive the grant from the Gates Foundation, Keogh showed, in a two-page application, how his idea falls outside current scientific paradigms and might lead to significant advances in global health.

Since malaria is carried by mosquitoes, many scientists are attempting to create models that show how the disease spreads in a region and how it responds to suppression programs.

To build such models, the movements of mosquitoes in a space and over time must be understood, Keogh said.

Insect counts are currently achieved by placing traps in an area, and counting the number of target species caught in a time frame. This is expensive in terms of materials and human time, and creates a lag between when the trap is placed and inspected. There is a need for accurate automatic sensors to detect, differentiate and count insects and immediately transmit the data wirelessly.

Working with his postdoctoral researcher, Gustavo Batista, who is also an assistant professor at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, and Agenor Mafra-Neto, CEO/president of ISCA Technologies, a commercial entomology company in Riverside, Keogh has shown that simple sensors, made from modified laser pointers purchased for less than a dollar, can measure insects’ wing beat frequency from a distance. This information can be used to distinguish at least some insect species.

The Gates Foundation grant will fund further work that will allow more species of insects to be classified from a greater distance.