Fisheries & Wildlife researcher earns NSF award to study disease spread

West Nile virus and bird flu are just two of the diseases spread from animals to humans. Jen Owen wants to know more about how those viruses are spreading. So she is studying birds.

April 28, 2014

West Nile virus and bird flu are just two of the diseases spread from animals to humans. Jen Owen wants to know more about how those viruses are spreading. So she is studying birds.

Owen, assistant professor in Michigan State University’s departments of Fisheries and Wildlife and Large Animal Clinical Sciences, was awarded a $907,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant, one of NSF’s most prestigious awards for pre-tenured faculty.

“Around the world, we are experiencing an unprecedented increase in the amount of emerging infectious diseases – all pose risks to wild and domestic animal and human populations,” Owen said. “Individuals in a population, whether they are animal or human, can play very different roles in how diseases are spread.”

A classic example was Mary Mallon, the source of many typhoid outbreaks in the early 1900s. Better known as Typhoid Mary, she was a carrier of typhoid but displayed no symptoms. She was presumed to have infected nearly 50 people with the disease.

Birds are the primary carriers of some of the most important emerging diseases that affect both humans and animals. An important knowledge gap in understanding these types of diseases is understanding why some individuals in a population are more likely to spread disease than other individuals, such as Typhoid Mary. These individuals are called “superspreaders,” Owen said. Trying to understand what makes an individual a superspreader of a disease will be the focus of Owen’s NSF-funded research.

About three-fourths of emerging infectious diseases in humans have originated in animals, including West Nile virus and avian influenza virus, Owen said. Birds, she said, serve as the source for these viruses.

Owen’s research program studies the role of wild birds in maintaining, transmitting, and spreading diseases. Specifically, she looks at diseases that are borne by animals but also are transmissible to humans.

“In this research, we will study the effect of environmental and genetic factors on a bird’s response to West Nile virus and avian influenza virus, in songbirds and waterfowl, respectively,” she said. “If we can start measuring differences within individuals in these animals, we can better predict the course of disease outbreaks, and develop targeted control and prevention strategies for animals and people.”

Owen will lead a team of interdisciplinary researchers including, Mark Jankowski, an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at MSU; Jeanne Fair, a scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory; and Matt Settles, director of the University of Idaho’s Bioinformatics and Evolutionary Studies Program.

NSF CAREER grants are awarded to faculty also to integrate their research with their teaching program. With the help of MSU’s Learning Design and Technology team and the College of Natural Sciences’ Center for Integrative Studies in General Science, Owen will develop and implement, a computer-based interactive lab for the classroom that will make the factors that underlie disease outbreaks more accessible to students.

MSU students will be able to manipulate environmental conditions and observe how they change the speed and intensity of a disease epidemic. This exercise will provide students the opportunity to take an active role in developing and testing predictions about the consequences of environmental disturbances to global health.

Owen’s research program fits within the interdisciplinary field of “ One Health,” which takes an integrated approach toward understanding the strong link between the health of people, animals and the environment. She is affiliated with MSU AgBioResearch.

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