July 6, 2022 | Erin Bluvas, email@example.com
In addition to playing a major role in the COVID-19 response efforts at the local, state and national levels during the past two years, infectious disease epidemiologist Melissa Nolan has grown her own research program over the course of the pandemic. Two years after the assistant professor and members of her Laboratory of Vector-borne and Zoonotic Diseases partnered with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (Medical Entomology Lab) and Clemson University (Livestock and Poultry Health) to launch the state’s first tick surveillance program, Nolan has been awarded $585K to expand their efforts.
The project is part of a five-year, $10 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to establish a collaborative center of key states affected by vector-borne diseases in the southeastern region. As deputy director for the South Carolina site, Nolan will work with co-investigators from nearly a dozen locations in nine states, including academic institutions in Florida, Alabama, North Carolina, Louisiana and others, that are part of the CDC Southeastern Center of Excellence in Vector-Borne Diseases.
“Tick-borne diseases are a growing public health threat in the United States, especially in the southeastern U.S. where invasive tick species and migrating tick species are establishing new footholds and hotspots,” she says. “Our work has unearthed focal areas of invasive tick species, novel pathogens and tick-borne diseases.”
Building on the more than 11,000 tick specimens analyzed through the state program so far, Nolan will coordinate enhanced collaborations between SC DHEC and academic partners. Moving beyond the periodic collection of ticks in a limited number of locations, the team will perform synchronized year-long tick surveillance by sampling more than 20 state parks and 20 animal shelters. Nolan’s team of student volunteers and graduate assistants will collect the tick samples (see photo above), which her lab will analyze to identify problematic ticks (e.g., Black Legged, Lone Star, American Dog) that can carry pathogens, such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever and the Heartland virus.
The award is timely as state officials and experts (including Nolan) involved in the surveillance program recently confirmed the presence of the Asian Longhorned Tick on a Midlands cattle ranch. This invasive species can feed on any animal but is most often found on cattle, dogs and humans. In addition to its ability to transmit a large number of infectious diseases (e.g., anaplasma, Lyme disease), the Asian Longhorned Tick (not to be confused with the unrelated Asian Longhorned Beetle) can reproduce without a male partner (i.e., parthenogenetic) – rapidly growing in numbers to the point of killing an animal through anemia due to an abundance of ticks feeding at the same time on one animal.
”Our collaboration with DHEC and the state veterinarian have helped create a more comprehensive tick control program to better serve the state,” Nolan says. “The receipt of this new grant will ensure another five years of funding to continue supporting this meaningful work.”
Nolan’s passion for vector-borne and zoonotic diseases grew from her Master of Public Health program at the University of Texas where she developed an interest in epidemiology and infectious diseases. Her Ph.D. in Clinical Investigation (Baylor College of Medicine) and postdoctoral fellowship (Texas Children’s Hospital) helped Nolan refine her interests to zero in on Chagas disease and tick-borne illnesses. She is particularly committed to preventing the transmission of diseases that disproportionately affect vulnerable and underserved groups in South Carolina, the United States and throughout the Americas.
In the four years since she joined the Arnold School, Nolan has garnered more than $11 million in extramural funding across 22 funded grant awards. Her work has led to more than 90 peer-reviewed publications, 65 presentations at national and international scientific conferences and recognition through multiple awards: Distinguished Undergraduate Research Mentor Award (2022), Faculty Service Award (2021), Presidential Coin of Excellence (UofSC). Nolan is a Science Policy Fellow with the Entomological Society of America, where she is being trained to advocate for the discipline and the underserved groups that are most affected by vector-borne diseases.