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Research

Aquatic Ecological Interaction Networks

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This research addresses how ecological networks are influenced by an invasive species of the riparian–aquatic interface. A collaborator (R McEwan) at the University of Dayton and I are studying the reciprocal energy and nutrient flow between riparian and stream communities that we hypothesize are mediated by microbial communities. Our recent 2012 paper, by a co-advised PhD student, in Biological Invasions (IF = 3.07) reports that this invasive species affects leaf litter decomposition and insect community composition in streams, which may result from shifts in the microbial communities. Thus, we are studying how microbial-insect interactions affect food webs and cross-system ecological networks of these ecosystems. We were recently funded through the NSF Population and Community Ecology program for a grant proposal. This will be a three-year grant supporting my lab’s microbial-insect community interactions research related to aquatic ecological networks and invasive species spread. My continued research in aquatic ecosystems also resulted in one 2013 publication in Rivers, Research and Applications (IF = 2.43) addressing the role of stream water flow reduction on life history traits of aquatic insects. This is a continued line of my research for about 20 years and is exemplified by a recent appointment to a National Research Council committee to review the Edwards Aquifer Conservation Program in Texas.

Disease Ecology

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My disease and carrion decomposition research discussed below rests on a solid foundation in community and ecosystem ecology, using principles from these disciplines to ask new and transformative questions related to understanding the mechanisms of disease and decomposition. For the last five years I have had a collaborative research program encompassing the disease ecology of Buruli ulcer in West Africa. This project began when I was at Michigan State University as a research associate and a co-PI on a large NIH grant with Rich Merritt. When I left MSU in 2008 I took with me a subcontract from this grant to develop independent lines of research that contributed to the overall larger study by supporting a technician, supplies and travel. Even though the previous funding has ended, I have been active in continuing this research with several field research trips over the last two years, namely one in December 2013 where we collected new data for use in two NIH grant proposals to be submitted in 2014. These new research lines in my lab focus on studying the community ecology of microbial communities, invertebrates and their interactions associated with Buruli ulcer. In 2013 my collaborators and I published four papers; one evaluating the role of aquatic invertebrates in Buruli ulcer disease in EcoHealth (IF = 2.20); another documenting the importance of fish and amphibians to this disease in Infection, Ecology and Epidemiology (IF = 2.87); one in PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases (IF = 4.57) associating pathogen with the disease in the landscape; and one modeling how aquatic invertebrate communities can be used for understanding multi-host pathogen transmission published in Environmental Research Letters (IF = 3.58). I continue close collaborations with a mathematics group in France (led by Jean-François Guégan), where we are working on another paper involving novel modeling of invertebrates and disease.  These new disease studies that my collaborators and I are proposing have been developed in part based on some new and exciting research that my lab has been leading in carrion decomposition. 

Carrion Ecology

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Recent research in my lab has been related to the basic ecology of decomposition, including animal and human carcasses for application in forensics. This research line received funding from the American Academy of Forensic Science and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) that both ended in 2013. Prior to this the more complex and interdisciplinary ideas behind this collaborative research served as a selected NSF Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) program topic idea in 2011 that my colleagues and I proposed to NSF. Further, in that year my collaborators and I published two invited papers related to this research in the Annual Review of Entomology (IF = 13.59) and Trends in Ecology & Evolution (IF = 16.9). Although not a product of 2013, the NSF EFRI topic idea and two high-impact papers have led to some very exciting research and momentum. The papers focused on developing a new framework for forensic entomology by using transformative research in ecology and evolution of the carrion decomposition process and has also resulted in two books that my collaborators and I are editing to be published in 2014: Carrion Ecology, Evolution and Their Applications and Forensic Entomology: International Dimensions and Frontiers

Further, this research has been documenting how multi-kingdom (or domains of life) interactions may drive important ecosystem processes, such as carrion decomposition, with important applications to disease systems that include invertebrate vectors or reservoirs. For instance, blow flies that use carrion can be important vectors in disease systems, including infectious food-borne diseases of cholera, shigellosis and salmonellosis. As such, my lab is studying microbial–invertebrate community interactions of decomposing carrion as a major part of a larger collaborative effort that includes a behavioral ecologist, molecular geneticist, pathogenic microbiologist and chemical engineer. In 2013, this research effort resulted in five publications in several different disciplinary journals, suggesting broad relevance for this model system for both basic and applied science, including forensics: one paper in PLoS ONE (IF = 3.73), Scientific Reports (IF = 2.93) and the International Journal of Legal Medicine (IF = 2.69); and two papers in the Journal of Medical Entomology (IF = 1.86). These papers have established the groundwork for much more transformative research into how inter-kingdom (domain) signaling between microbes and insects is much more common than once believed and possibly much more important to natural processes.