My research centers around two themes:
As a member of the Philips lab, which studies the cellular mechanisms that are involved in the control (or lack there of) of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, I study how immune cell gene expression associates with infection outcomes. More specifically, what transcriptional changes occur in macrophages and T cells during exposure to Mtb, and what molecular functions can be attributed to these changes?
Wildlife Pathogen Surveillance:
As a member of the Wang Lab and FPI researcher, I have the exciting task of collecting samples from wildlife populations and then screening those samples for a wide range of parasites and pathogens. This work is important not because of human health risks associated with emerging infectious disease, but because of the “shared” health risks humans and wildlife face.
What is Parasite Ecology:
Since my PhD, I have been fascinated in using parasites to further our understanding of wildlife population- and community-level processes. Here are some of the fundamental questions that parasite ecologists grapple with…
- Which parasites do different animal host species carry? Which are shared between species, and which are host specific? Do wildlife hosts possess any parasites in common with humans?
- How are parasites distributed throughout host populations? Does each host individual have an equal share of parasites? If not, who tends to have more or less parasites, males/females, old/young, breeders/non-breeders.
- How do parasites affect the health of their hosts? Are individuals with certain parasites actually sick or unhealthy? Do they exhibit different behaviors? Do parasitized individuals alter their diet (e.g. to self-medicate)? Do healthy individuals avoid parasitized individuals?
- If we think of the host as the environment, then how do multiple parasites within the same host interact? These situations are referred to as concomitant infections, and they are the norm in nature. Parasites can interact directly by competing for space or other resources, or indirectly by activating or deactivating aspects of the host immune system. Do parasites that are in the same tissue interact more strongly than parasites that are in separate tissues?
There are so many more uses for parasites/pathogens that have yet to be fully explored. For example, parasites that are ubiquitous across host populations, and which are highly transmissible by direct contact, could provide key insights into how and with who conspecifics interact. At the level of the community, we might consider parasite richness and diversity as correlates of community health. Loss of natural parasite diversity can be associated with habitat degradation, and declining health of a host population. What better way to monitor the well being of a wildlife population or community, then by noninvasive sampling for parasites?
To study disease ecology in wild animal populations, I screen for parasites and pathogens from non-invasively collected fecal samples. The main methods for detection include microscopy and molecular (genetic) screening. Additionally, with logistical support from Field Projects International, I am able to collect ectoparasites, blood samples, and mucosal swabs via mark and recapture programs. You can learn more about the annual sampling effort on the FPI website.