Melissa Nolan may still be in the early stage of her career, but she’s become a household name – both locally and nationally – over the past year. The infectious diseases expert and assistant professor of epidemiology has been a key part of UofSC’s COVID-19 strategy team, receiving the 2021 Arnold School of Public Health Faculty Service Award for her efforts. She’s partnered with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control to monitor COVID-19 prevalence and immunity across the state (i.e., SC STRONG), and her patient explanations of virus transfer, hand washing, vaccinations and many other COVID-19 topics have been published by hundreds of media outlets across the country.
Despite the many additional demands on her time over the past year, Nolan has managed to advance her own research into infectious diseases and health disparities. Over her 3.5 years at UofSC, she has built the Laboratory of Vector Borne and Zoonotic Diseases by engaging an enthusiastic group of students whose membership swells up to 30 individuals at times. From freshmen to veteran doctoral students, these budding scientists are eager to learn the ropes of research. As a bonus, they get to do it in an atmosphere rich with mentorship and hands-on experience.
“As a first-generation college student, giving back through mentorship to the next generation is very important to me,” says Nolan, who was recognized by the UofSC Office of the Vice President for Research earlier this year with the Distinguished Undergraduate Research Mentor Award.
The lab is organized through a tiered mentor structure, where each undergraduate student is paired with one graduate student and with Nolan herself. This approach allows the undergraduate student to have a mentor closer to their age, and it gives the graduate student an opportunity to develop their own mentorship skills.
“We are a close-knit team, and our productivity as a lab comes from our mutual respect for each other,” Nolan says. “My lab represents persons of different races, ethnicities, sexual preferences and lifestyles. We all respect each other for our own talents, and that makes for a greater end product.”
Two of Nolan’s lieutenants are Kyndall Dye-Braumuller and Katie Lynn, both entering their third year in the Ph.D. in Epidemiology program. Dye-Braumuller and Lynn have held critical roles in leading the lab and
mentoring other students during the past year while Nolan’s time and attention has
been essential to fighting the pandemic. But these emerging researchers are far more
seasoned than their two-year status implies.
Tick Surveillance & Pathogens
Dye-Braumuller crossed paths with Nolan when the master’s in entomology (University of Kentucky) graduate moved to Houston, Texas to serve as the vector surveillance manager for the local public health department. Nolan was half-way through her three-year postdoctoral fellowship at Texas Children’s Hospital when they connected on their mutual interest in tick-borne diseases.
Three years later, Dye-Braumuller enrolled at the Arnold School, and together they have drastically expanded tick surveillance both in South Carolina and El Salvador. Despite pandemic challenges, 2020 marked South Carolina’s first statewide tick surveillance program. The lab partnered with SC DHEC, and leveraged the time and talents of their network of student researchers, to collect ticks at state parks from March to October of last year.
Together, the team has been building a tick surveillance program from scratch – developing protocols and sending samples to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to test for pathogens. This year, the team will expand their surveillance to even more state parks and conduct their own pathogen testing by a soon-to-be-trained Dye-Braumuller.
As reported by South Carolina Public Radio at the outset and conclusion of the 2020 project, Nolan and her “plucky band of student tick hunters” worked with animal shelters and other groups to paint a picture of the tick landscape in South Carolina. They identified the different tick varieties within the state and discovered their various pathogens – illness-causing microorganisms that can pose threats to people and pets alike.
With clear success and benefits resulting from this local project, Nolan and Dye-Braumuller took their tick surveillance expertise to Central America, where they worked with the University of El Salvador Department of Agriculture to begin building a surveillance program for ticks and other vector-borne diseases. Last month, they traveled South to work with the University of El Salvador and the Center for Research and Development in Health to share techniques and methods as well as collect the first samples of ticks, which will eventually be tested in Nolan’s lab alongside the South Carolina ticks.
“I am excited to continue this current tick project to increase awareness of tick-borne disease risk in the state of South Carolina and El Salvador while also advancing the field of medical entomology by applying the epidemiological skills that I have learned during my tenure here at UofSC,” says Dye-Braumuller. “I think that this work will really help residents understand more about ticks and tick-borne disease and apply personal prevention techniques in order to prevent future disease transmission.”
Dye-Braumuller has been interested in epidemiology since she first learned about disease
outbreaks in a seventh-grade science class. She incorporated entomology after taking
an introductory course as an undergraduate student and realizing she was fascinated
by the intersection of insects/arthropods and humans in both work (e.g., pollination,
agriculture) and life (e.g., disease factors, pests, food products, animal health).
Now she has refined her career goal to become a medical entomologist or vector-borne
Chagas Disease from Mother to Infant
Lynn met Nolan while earning a master’s degree in environmental science at the College of Charleston. After graduating, she joined Nolan’s lab as a research associate and soon enrolled in the doctoral program. Together, they have worked on an array of projects, including Trichomoniasis in pediatric populations, Chagas disease in the U.S. and Latin America, and GI parasites among children in El Salvador.
“Infectious diseases are so fascinating and complex from the microbe to the population scale,” says Lynn, who takes an interdisciplinary approach to the field – incorporating environmental, geographical, sociopolitical, public health and human behavioral perspectives into her work.
Lynn has already conducted research in El Salvador with Nolan, who has a long-term partnership with the University of El Salvador and the Ministry of Health since her days as a doctoral student at Baylor College of Medicine. With their latest trip in May, they continued their previous projects examining Chagas disease in children who are co-infected with GI parasites.
Building on a project led by Johns Hopkins University international health professor Robert Gilman, Nolan and Lynn are looking into the transfer of Chagas disease from mother to child in utero. Infection rates have risen over the past few years, so they met with El Salvador’s primary labor and delivery hospital (National Women’s Hospital), the Ministry of Health and Women’s Waiting Homes (i.e., healthcare clinics for rural communities) to better understand opportunities for prevention, screening and treatment.
“Fortunately, the treatment for Chagas disease, especially among infants and when treated early, is very successful,” Lynn says. “We hope the outcomes of this project will help doctors and scientists understand what biological risk factors in mom lead to passing Chagas to her baby and to inform how doctors can manage Chagas disease in mothers to prevent the disease from infecting baby.”
Lynn will live in El Salvador this fall to help move the project forward. After she completes her degree, she would like to continue working with neglected tropical disease intervention in the non-profit sector.
“I view my role as a mentor as a co-pilot, where the students might be in training, but they each have their own inherent talents and my job is simply to guide them in developing those talents,” Nolan says of her students’ achievements. “In the end, the lab’s success comes down to hard work. There are no short cuts, just hard work, dedication and passion.”