Ellen is investigating the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, with particular interest to its surprisingly close relation to a large group of algae called dinoflagellates. The malaria parasite is a single celled organism that contains a now dormant but still vital cellular organ similar to those still active in algae. Her research focuses on how the malaria parasite evolved from a free-living alga to one of the most important human pathogens.
Each year around 500 million people are infected with the malaria parasite resulting in 1 million deaths, 95% of deaths are children. Although there are several anti-malarial drugs, key drugs are becoming ineffective due to increasing resistance and soon there will be strains of malaria that cannot be treated. Her hope is that in future the information obtained from her research will answer the urgent need for novel targets and can be used for the design of new anti-malarial drugs.