Luis Escobar, assistant professor of wildlife conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, has been awarded a Mentored Research Scientist Development Award by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the spillover of a wildlife disease that can severely impact human health: rabies.

Intended to launch the careers of junior scientists who have already demonstrated a capacity for productive research in their fields, this five-year, $623,000 award from NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases will provide Escobar with support for an intensive, mentored career development experience, leading to research independence.

The honor comes soon after Escobar’s notification that received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development Award. For that effort, he’ll be studying the transmission of hantavirus as a means to determine how climate change may influence the spillover of viruses between wildlife and humans.

Understanding rabies transmission

Escobar’s work will directly address a knowledge gap that limits our understanding of the spread of rabies and its spillover from wildlife to humans. He’ll be studying vampire bats in Latin America, and, although these bats are not currently found in the U.S., the rabies virus they carry is rapidly expanding northward.

A key question Escobar hopes to answer is why the disease spreads in some geographic areas more than others. His research has three aims:

  • Determine the role of habitat and virus mutation on rabies spillover to humans and livestock across Latin America
  • Identify the effect of changes in biodiversity in rabies virus spillover
  • Investigate geographic and environmental factors influencing the spread of bat-borne rabies

Facilitating future discoveries

Escobar’s research represents a novel approach in the study of rabies spillover — or that of any virus — from wildlife to humans: He will be utilizing spatial modeling in combination with epidemiological and ecological data.

This grant provides an opportunity to continue developing the knowledge and skills that will facilitate and expand his ongoing research program. Additionally, his body of work seeks to inform prevention measures designed to stop the spread of rabies and other diseases impacting human health worldwide.

“This award is fundamental to help me gain skills in bioinformatics, laboratory management, and proposal development as I establish an internationally recognized laboratory in zoonotic diseases of fish and wildlife origin,” Escobar said.

He also noted that an outstanding group of mentors from Virginia Tech and external institutions will guide him to become an independent principal investigator. “This is a unique opportunity for me to learn from scientists I admire.”

Building a research portfolio

This newly-funded grant to study rabies transmission will complement an already-strong research program that Escobar has been overseeing in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation.

In addition to the recent NSF award to study the impacts of climate on the spread of hantavirus, Escobar has

“Dr. Escobar’s experience speaks directly to the commitment of the faculty and administration of Virginia Tech to the success of early career faculty,” said Professor and department head Joel Snodgrass. “Dr. Escobar has found guidance here on campus that has allowed him to expand his mentoring network beyond the university, an expansion that will contribute significantly to his success.”

Escobar is an affiliated faculty member of the Global Change Center and the Center for Emerging, Zoonotic, and Arthropod-borne Pathogens, both part of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, as well as the Kellogg Center for Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.

His NIH award to study rabies transmission in vampire bats was guided by a pilot project funded through the Junior Faculty Program of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science

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