University of Georgia
March 2016
Research
Coming up with<br>the big IDEAS

In January, the Odum School of Ecology held a graduate recruitment event to bring in top prospective students to meet with faculty, tour the facilities and attend their annual graduate student symposium. (Beth Gavrilles/UGA)

Coming up with the big IDEAS

UGA’s new doctoral training program in disease ecology admits first cohort.

Avian influenza, Ebola, Zika: The news is full of stories about infectious diseases. With each outbreak, doctors and public health officials across the globe scramble to respond.

As these international efforts show, fighting infectious diseases takes more than a purely medical approach. It requires an understanding of the ecological context in which the hosts and pathogens interact, the ability to process and analyze enormous amounts of data and the skills to communicate effectively with the public.

IDEAS — Infectious Disease Ecology Across Scales — is a new interdisciplinary doctoral training program in the University of Georgia’s Odum School of Ecology designed to meet this demand.

Led by Vanessa Ezenwa, associate professor in the Odum School and College of Veterinary Medicine department of infectious diseases, and a steering committee made up of faculty from five academic units, IDEAS integrates knowledge from multiple scales of biological organization ranging from the cell to the biosphere. By combining disciplines like microbiology, public health and ecology with training in quantitative methods and science communication, IDEAS will provide students with the skills to solve complex problems in this increasingly high priority field.

The first cohort of IDEAS students will enter the program this fall.

According to Ezenwa, the hallmark of IDEAS is a series of courses that will teach students to think about problems in infectious diseases from this integrative perspective.

“Instead of having separate courses in cell biology, microbiology and population biology of infectious diseases, these courses will integrate all of these levels simultaneously using a case study-based approach,” she said. “For instance, we might focus on tuberculosis as a disease and teach fundamental principles about the causative pathogen and its interaction with hosts, all the way from what’s happening at the cellular level to the global spread of TB and TB drug resistance.”

It was this integrative approach that attracted Alex Lee to IDEAS.

Lee, from Oakland, Calif., is part of the first cohort of students accepted into the IDEAS program, drawn from schools including the University of California, Davis; Yale University; Tulane University; Penn State University and Virginia Tech, and with backgrounds ranging from biology to statistics.

Lee became interested in disease ecology as an undergraduate at UC Davis, when he took a class on parasitology.

“That was my first introduction to parasites and disease,” he said. “I took it almost on a whim, and it ended up being my favorite class. But it was the last class I took so I couldn’t pursue it further at that point.”

Lee graduated with his bachelor’s degree in evolution and ecology and went on to a successful career with the California Environmental Protection Agency. Then, a couple of years ago, he picked up a copy of “Parasite Rex” by the award-winning science writer Carl Zimmer.

“That book reignited my interest in disease ecology,” he said. “I realized that was what I really wanted to do. And when I learned about the Odum School and the IDEAS program, I knew it was the right fit for me.”

UGA is an ideal place for IDEAS, according to Ezenwa, given the breadth and depth of infectious disease research and interdisciplinary collaboration already underway across campus. The Faculty of Infectious Diseases boasts more than 100 members, and the project’s 28 participating faculty span 13 academic units.

“This important win is primarily a result of the remarkable creativity our faculty demonstrated in developing this truly innovative training program.”

— David Lee

UGA’s strength in computational and quantitative methods is another important factor, allowing IDEAS to emphasize mathematical and statistical modeling and other quantitative skills necessary to manage and analyze the rapidly increasing amount of infectious disease data.

Science communication training will benefit from the expertise of faculty members from the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Experiential learning is another key aspect of the program. Students will participate in internships or study abroad opportunities where they will have the chance to apply their academic training in real-world situations, gaining the kind of hands-on experience that can’t be acquired in the classroom.

Suzanne Barbour, dean of the UGA Graduate School, credited Ezenwa and the IDEAS team for building an exciting and innovative program that will provide students with the knowledge and skills necessary to be successful in an increasingly competitive job market.

“IDEAS has potential to have significant impacts on graduate training beyond our campus, across the nation and potentially throughout the world,” she said. “Through Dr. Ezenwa’s program, the University of Georgia is poised to take a leadership role in graduate education.”

IDEAS is supported by a five-year, $2.99 million grant from the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship program, which was established to support innovative — and transferable — models for interdisciplinary graduate education in the areas of science, engineering and math, with a focus on critical research needs.

“This important win is primarily a result of the remarkable creativity our faculty demonstrated in developing this truly innovative training program,” said David Lee, vice president for research. “But it is also a tangible result of the university’s efforts to build a world-class infectious disease program.”

The IDEAS steering committee reflects the success of those efforts. Its members are associate dean and Athletic Association Professor of Ecology Sonia Altizer, professor Jeb Byers, associate professor John Drake, and assistant research scientist Richard Hall, all from the Odum School; assistant professor Courtney Murdock, associate professor Andrew Park, and professor Pej Rohani, all with joint appointments in the Odum School and the College of Veterinary Medicine; professor Julie Moore in the College of Veterinary Medicine; professor Duncan Krause in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences; Chris Whalen, Ernest Corn Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology in the College of Public Health; and Michael Yabsley, associate professor in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources with a joint appointment in the College of Veterinary Medicine.

“Our goal is that when they’re done, these students will understand the principles of infectious disease ecology across scales, and have the skills and global perspective to tackle the most pressing infectious disease problems of our time,” Ezenwa said.

To learn more about IDEAS, see http://ideas.ecology.uga.edu/.

— Beth Gavrilles, Odum School of Ecology