Dr. Rampa Rattanarathikul, mosquito expert, with Jeff and Kendra
Earlier this week I lost some sleep here in Shanghai when a mosquito viewed me as an all-you-eat buffet. Mosquitoes seem to be more strongly attracted to me than anyone else around, but it's largely unrequited affection, though I do marvel at their design. In fact, I am one of the few Americans to not only set foot in the easily overlooked Mosquito Museum (officially the Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders) in Chiang Mai, Thailand, but to also spend time discussing mosquitoes with the charming woman scientist who built that amazing, quirky place, Dr. Rampa Rattanarathikul, arguably the world's leading expert on mosquitoes. She is far more positive about the overall role of mosquitoes in the ecosystem than I am.

Although I was convinced that our Shanghai apartment was mosquito free when I turned the lights out, I awoke at about 4 AM with an itching arm that had about three bites. I reached for one of the greatest inventions known to mankind, the mosquito racquet, a bug zapper that looks like a tennis racquet. Eventually I grabbed two to double my killing power, yearning for a soul-satisfying zap. With no luck yet, on went my LED flashlight to support a meticulous scan of walls, the ceiling, the headboard, pretty much everywhere, always waving the wand in random places while I searched for signs of a resting or flying mosquito. I was successful in my secondary goal of not waking my wife, but my zap-and-nap strategy never reached the zap phase.

After 20 or so minutes of waving and searching, I wondered if I may have scored a silent kill, and decided to go back to sleep. But first I applied some DoTERRA grapefruit essential oil, containing a small but possibly effective amount of nootkatone, the amazing compound that is vastly more effective than DEET in repelling mosquitoes (though my friends at DoTERRA didn't know that). In fact, it can even kill mosquitoes (though the essential oil I used may not have enough nootkatone to kill) due to a surprising interaction it has with a mosquito's wing regulator system. It causes the regulator system to go out of control and make the mosquito buzz way too fast until it just drops dead. Sweet! (Sorry, Dr. Rampa. I still think you are fabulous and admire your lifetime of research on the critters I despise.)

Grapefruit oil is relatively safe on humans but don't get it in your eyes or lungs. Like many citrus essential oils, it can be painful or harmful in the eyes. I can testify of the pain that grapefruit essential oil causes: a very small amount touched near my eye caused long-lasting pain the other day that was not quickly reduced by heavy rinsing with water. Ouch, ouch, ouch! But I still love the smell and it seems to be effective in warding off mosquitoes, though it is fairly volatile and might not last terribly long. That's also a challenge for nootkatone, not to mention its terribly high price (though two companies have developed techniques to make it cheaper, one using bacteria to produce it and another using catalysts to make it from a low-cost orange oil compound).

When I awoke later, I found that critter on the ceiling. I got it this time. Where had she been hiding during all my earlier searches?

But the point of this is what happened after I tried to go back to sleep. At about 5:15 AM, as recorded by my Pleco Chinese dictionary app's history function, I was troubled by an important thought: "You don't know the Chinese word for PRIME NUMBER." Yikes, prime number -- I need to know that word, I thought. Now if you're like me and enjoy hanging out with geeks and science fans and people who love to read and learn, you've probably had discussions about prime numbers with other people, oh, about twice in the past 5 years or so (excluding my wife, a math teacher, who really enjoys chit chat on all sorts of math issues, including prime numbers which came up about a month ago when I told her about the news of a possible but controversial proof of the Riemann Hypothesis).

Really, almost nobody talks about prime numbers in casual conversation. Why would I ever need that word in Chinese? But I did want to know. "I'm curious, but I can just look it up in the morning. Time to sleep now." And then came the thought: "If you don't look it up now, you might forget to do it later. Why not just do it now?" I've justified numerous lengthy departures from sleep with that kind of reasoning and have been trying hard to resist that path, but this time seemed different. "It will just take a second, if I'm careful." And so I looked up the word for prime number. Two different terms, actually, but apparently zhishu (质数) is the more commonly used one. It could be translated as "number of substance." Interesting and logical. Cool. And then I kept my promise to myself and tried, with eventual and brief success, to go back to sleep.

A few hours later that morning, I would get a call from the executive of one of China's finest private charities (in my biased opinion), the Huang Yicong Foundation for which I am delighted to have been recently added as a board member. The executive director wanted to talk to me. I rushed over to her office on the same floor where I work. As I sat down, I was touched with a beautiful Buddhist image attached to the lower portion of her computer screen. I was struck with this thought: "This faithful Buddhist woman is serving the same God I worship in her devotion and service to others." I reflected briefly upon the goodness in so many faiths and in those who seek to live higher laws learned through their faith.

She began by telling me about a challenge among some outstanding students in one of the schools we support. As she was interacting with these students recently, she told me, she was asking what their biggest challenges are in education. English was a key issue. And in her discussion, she realized that there is vocabulary in English related to many of the areas that they need to study that they really don't know. "For example," she said, "I asked the students if they knew the English word for 质数, which is prime number." "Whoa!" I said. "This morning I had a strange feeling that I needed to look up the word for prime number. Look, here it is in my Pleco dictionary. There is the search for prime number at 5:15 AM. Zhishu. Never needed it once in my seven years here, and now after that strange experience, here you are talking to me about prime numbers. So strange. Anyway, whatever you are about to ask me, I think it's going to be important." And it was.

She wanted to ask me and my wife if we could spend some time at least monthly or more often if possible doing a videoconference with those special students to help them improve their English while also using helping them with vocabulary related to math and other fields they are studying. We also may be going there to visit them. Time has been tight recently, but I think we can do this and we both would love to help, and now my Chinese teacher, touched by this story, has also volunteered to help. I saw the class today in a brief initial videoconference and was impressed with the sharp, sweet, and well-behaved group.

Of particular significance to me was the way she presented this assignment to me. It was done it a personal interview. It began with a discussion of the particular strengths and needs of the people I would be assigned to. It was done with love, respect, and charity. I should have asked that fine leader if she had been reading the new LDS materials on ministering, because she delivered the assignment in exactly the right way. Those materials, available in the Ministering section of the LDS Library App, emphasize that assignments to minister should be given in a personal interview that includes discussing not just the needs of those involved, but also their strengths. She did it perfectly, lovingly, and so effectively. What a great example to follow. I marvel at her natural leadership and ministering skills.

I look forward to seeing where this assignment leads us. How interesting that an annoying sleep-depriving critter and a coincidence involving prime numbers could play a role in awaking me to the significance of a leader's thoughtful assignment. I hope I can live up to this opportunity.

Related post: "Two Words that Finally Helped Me Grasp the Genius of the New Ministering Program"
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