The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a spotlight on the importance of bringing together innovative scientific minds to tackle infectious diseases and the need to forecast future threats at the human-environment interface.

The Fralin Life Sciences Institute is co-locating researchers from across three colleges at Virginia Tech to Steger Hall to make an impact at the interface of infectious disease and the environment. 

“We are building upon the launch of our newly formed Center for Emerging, Zoonotic, and Arthropod-borne Pathogens and Fralin’s existing centers to support synergies among faculty who are working to tackle some of the grand life-science challenges of our time and improve the human condition. We are excited to have an impact on the community and to develop new leaders at the intersection of environmental changes and infectious disease, while building on our strengths in computational modeling and data analysis,” said Matt Hulver, executive director of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute.

A group of Virginia Tech professors who focus on vector-borne disease, disease ecology, pathogen transmission, ecological forecasting, and data analysis and computational modeling have just moved their research programs to Steger Hall and are looking forward to collaborating:

Clément Vinauger, assistant professor, biochemistry, College of Agriculture and Life SciencesThe Vinauger lab aims to understand the mechanisms that allow blood-feeding insects to be efficient disease vectors and identify and characterize factors that modulate their host-seeking behavior with the goal of developing new modes of mosquito control. The Vinauger lab leverages interdisciplinary tools to study the genetic and neural basis of mosquito behavior by combining methods from biochemistry, neuroscience, engineering, and chemical ecology. 

Chloé Lahondère, assistant professor, biochemistry, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The Lahondère lab studies the effects of temperature and climate change on the eco-physiology and behavior of mosquitoes, kissing bugs, and tsetse flies. Her lab also has an interest in sugar feeding behavior in mosquitoes as well as in monitoring pathogens in local mosquito populations. The main goal is to better understand the ecology and biology of disease vector arthropods to develop new control tools using a multidisciplinary approach involving genetics, behavioral analyses, and field observations. These tools can be exploited to control mosquito populations and reduce the spread of disease.

Kate Langwig, assistant professor, biological sciences, College of Science. Langwig is a quantitative field ecologist, and uses mathematical models parameterized by field and experimental data to provide insights at the host-pathogen-environment interface. Langwig’s research program focuses on the role of disease in determining population dynamics and community structure. As part of this research, she explores how variation among hosts influences epidemiological dynamics, population impacts, and the effectiveness of vaccines. Langwig’s lab also studies the impact of infectious disease on ecological communities, the importance of disease in determining species extinctions, and the long-term persistence of populations affected by invasive pathogens.

Joseph Hoyt, assistant professor, biological sciences, College of Science. Hoyt’s research interests lie at the intersection of disease ecology and conservation biology. His lab works on basic and applied research questions, primarily in emerging infectious diseases of wildlife. His current research program is focused on understanding how pathogens are transmitted through multi-host communities, spanning individual to landscape scales. He is particularly interested in disentangling the relative importance of environmental transmission and free-living pathogen stages to help facilitate the control of future disease outbreaks and provide a deeper ecological understanding of infectious diseases.

Brandon Jutras, assistant professor, biochemistry, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Lyme disease is now the most reported vector-borne disease in the United States. In Virginia, it is estimated that the incidence has increased more than 6,000 percent in the past 10 years. Four major species of ticks can transmit the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, but only one of them, the blacklegged, or deer tick (Ixodes scapularis), is found in Virginia. The Jutras lab is using cutting-edge quantitative microscopy and molecular techniques to discover new targets for the diagnosis and treatment of Lyme disease. In addition, the Jutras lab is studying closely-related bacteria that cause syphilis, tickborne relapsing fever, and leptospirosis. 

Dana Hawley, professor, biological sciences, College of Science. Pathogens are colonizing novel host populations with increasing frequency, underscoring the need to understand what factors drive infectious disease spread and the evolution of more harmful pathogens. The Hawley lab investigates the ecological and evolutionary mechanisms that underlie host susceptibility, pathogen virulence (i.e., the amount of harm that pathogens cause their hosts), and infectious disease transmission. The Hawley lab approaches disease ecology from a multi-disciplinary perspective to understand how individual physiology and pathogen characteristics, such as virulence, social behavior, and environmental context, interact to influence infectious disease dynamics. Ultimately, these studies will improve the understanding of the broader processes that underlie pathogen evolution and spread in wild animal, domestic animal, and human populations.

"Infectious diseases don't follow disciplinary boundaries - their spread results from the convergence of molecular interactions within cells and tissues and ecological interactions between organisms and with their environment. We really have to break out of our departmental silos to effectively study the complexity of infectious disease emergence and spread," said Hawley.  

The Global Change Center, an arm of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, is also moving and will be administratively housed in Steger Hall. 

“Big problems require innovative collaborations and bold strategies to find solutions. Co-locating faculty from different colleges working on some of the most ‘wicked’ societal challenges of our time, will generate new collaborations, foster interdisciplinary student training, and promote efficiency. I am excited to make the move and help support the vibrant community in Steger Hall,” said William Hopkins, associate executive director of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and director of the Global Change Center. 

Hopkins’ research program at Virginia Tech, which focuses on physiological ecology, conservation, and wildlife ecotoxicology, will also be moving to Steger Hall. 

“The Fralin Life Sciences Institute is removing barriers, both physical and disciplinary, and is positioning our faculty to advance Virginia Tech’s work in infectious diseases and its impact on a global community,” said Cyril Clarke, executive vice president and provost of Virginia Tech. “Working together across a range of disciplinary interests, I anticipate that new ways of thinking about the linkages between human, animal, and environmental health will better prepare us to manage pandemics such as COVID-19.”

A group of scientists with cutting-edge skills in data analysis, computer modeling, and ecological forecasting are also joining Steger Hall to tackle multiple problem spaces including those related to global change:

Leah Johnson, associate professor, statistics, College of Science. Johnson is a statistical ecologist working at the intersection of statistics, mathematics, and biology. She focuses on understanding how differences between individuals in a population result from external heterogeneity and stochasticity, and how this variability influences population level patterns, especially in the space of infectious disease epidemiology. She leads the Quantitative Ecological Dynamics Lab (QED Lab). The lab currently focuses on understanding how climate impacts transmission of vector-borne diseases, and how to predict changes in where disease is likely to be transmitted as climate changes. She also examines how environment and human changes to the landscape can impact energetics, foraging behavior, and population dynamics of animals. Her approach is to use theoretical models to understand how systems behave generally, while simultaneously seeking to confront and validate models with data and make predictions. Thus, a significant portion of her research focuses on methods for statistical — particularly Bayesian — inference and validation for mechanistic mathematical models of biological and ecological systems.

Lauren Childs, assistant professor, mathematics, College of Science. Childs develops and analyzes mathematical and computational models to examine biologically motivated questions. A main focus of her research program is understanding the pathogenesis and spread of infectious diseases, such as malaria and dengue. There is an emphasis on the interactions within an organism, such as between an invading pathogen and the host immune response. In addition, she also examines how these within-host interactions impact transmission of disease throughout a population. Construction and analysis of the models utilizes mathematics ranging from differential equations, dynamical systems, to stochastic analysis.

Luis Escobar, assistant professor, fish and wildlife conservation, College of Natural Resources and EnvironmentOngoing global change projects in the Escobar lab include the role of aquatic and terrestrial invasive species in disease transmission, effects of climate change on the burden of vector-borne and water-borne diseases, and the development of analytical methods to assess the impacts of global change on biodiversity and diseases. Escobar’s lab focuses on the distribution of biodiversity, including parasites and pathogens at global scales, and under past, current, and future environmental conditions. Escobar is particularly interested in the use of ecoinformatics to study infectious diseases of fish and wildlife origin.

Quinn Thomas, associate professor, forest resources and environmental conservation, College of Natural Resources and Environment. Thomas’ research group studies the forest and freshwater ecosystems upon which society depends. They use quantitative models to simulate how ecosystems change over time in response to land-use, climate change, atmospheric deposition, and management. Additionally, they measure carbon, water, and energy exchange between ecosystems and the atmosphere using eddy-covariance and biometeorology sensors.  Finally, they forecast the future of ecosystems by combining observations and ecosystem models using Bayesian statistical techniques. Thomas leads an NSF-funded effort to galvanize the field of ecological forecasting using data from the National Ecological Observatory Network, an effort that includes Leah Johnson on the leadership team.

Johnson, Childs, Escobar, and Thomas will focus on mathematic and computational modeling across multiple problem spaces related to infectious disease, climate change, invasive species, and other aspects of rapid environmental change. 

“I’m excited at this point in my career to expand the group of people I work with across campus while still representing my home department in the College of Natural Resources and Environment. A career is a set of chapters, and this chapter’s move to Steger Hall will enable me to create new collaborations with quantitative and computational scientists from different departments who are interested in solving problems at the environment-human interface,” Thomas said.

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