Dr. Nathan Burkett-Cadena
Vector-borne disease ecology is an interdisciplinary science that seeks to understand the combination of biological, geological and climatological factors that produce environments conducive to the amplification and spillover of vector-borne pathogens. The biology and ecology of vertebrate host animals (mainly birds and rodents) and vectors (mosquitoes, ticks, lice, fleas and others) have profound influence on the transmission of viruses and protozoans that impact humans as well as non-human animals. Contact between the vertebrate hosts and vectors are driven by their ecology (the microhabitats they inhabit, the time of day they forage, their host or prey preference) and the quantity of host-vector contacts is profoundly important in driving vector-borne disease transmission. Eastern equine encephalitis virus, for example, is a deadly mosquito-borne virus that replicates well in some birds, but not in others. However, being a competent host for the virus is only one factor determining whether or not a given bird species is important for virus transmission in nature. If a bird species that supports virus replication is "avoided" (not fed upon) by the mosquitoes in the area, then it contributes little to the spread of the virus. So why is one bird species avoided by mosquitoes, and another "preferred"? Some avoided birds actively defend against attacking mosquitoes. Others may nest or roost high above the height that the mosquitoes search for hosts. A major focus of my research is centered on investigating host-vector ecology: quantifying the relationships and determining why different species of host animals (birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians) are preferred or avoided by different vector species. The overarching goal is to understand how these interactions drive the transmission of vector-borne pathogens.
My research has focused on diverse vector-borne disease systems including river blindness, eastern equine encephalitis virus, West Nile virus, epizootic, Everglades virus and epizootic hemorrhagic disease virus. Current projects focus on ecology of eastern equine encephalitis virus, West Nile virus, epizootic, Everglades virus and epizootic hemorrhagic disease virus. Students and postdocs in my program receive training and experience in field techniques involving vectors and vertebrate hosts, laboratory techniques including morphological and molecular identification of vectors and hosts, and analysis if field and laboratory data.