A previous two-year study by Gleim and her fellow researchers determined that tick populations were substantially lowered where long-term prescribed fires, “an especially common and necessary land management practice in fire-dependent ecosystems such as open pine forests, grasslands, and fire-maintained wetlands,” were employed.
“In the current study,” Gleim’s report states, “these ticks were tested for pathogens to more directly investigate the impacts of long-term prescribed burning on human disease risk….The incidence of these tick-borne diseases has increased in the past several decades and several new pathogens have emerged….Thus, the need to find cost-effective, practical approaches to reducing tick-borne disease risk is more important than ever.
“To follow up on our finding that long-term prescribed fire significantly reduced tick abundance,” the report continues, “the current study tested the ticks collected in that previous study for common tick-borne pathogens to investigate how prescribed fire may affect pathogen dynamics.”
Gleim and her team performed the first-ever major survey of tick-borne pathogens in southwestern Georgia and northwestern Florida. The results offer “exciting implications for public health as it appears that prescribed fire, when performed on a regular basis, significantly reduces encounter rates with ticks infected with pathogenic bacteria.” Reductions in tick populations were sustained rather than temporary “through regular, long-term prescribed fires [that] resulted in a drier microclimate at ground-level….”
While the results of the study are encouraging, Gleim concludes with a couple of caveats. “Because all of our burned sites had been burned on a regular basis for a minimum of ten years, further research needs to occur to determine how long regular burns would have to occur in order to achieve the results observed in this study. Additionally, the particular habitat and microclimatic conditions that are required for the results observed in this study seem to imply that the ability of fire to reduce tick populations and disease risk may vary depending on ecosystem-type and the management objectives of the prescribed fire.
“Thus, similar studies need to be conducted in different ecosystems and regions of the country to determine whether long-term prescribed burning could have effects similar to those observed in the current study on different pathogens and/or within different ecosystems.”
Scientific Reports received more than 300,000 citations in 2018 and garners widespread attention in policy documents and the media. It is part of Nature Research, a family of journals that includes Nature, the leading international weekly journal of science first published in 1869.
In a significant way, Hollins University’s profile in the field of marine biology is about to rise.
Natasha Bestrom ’18, a Horizon alumna who double-majored in biology and environmental studies, is the lead author of a Hollins study on coral populations in the U.S. Virgin Islands that is being finalized for publication in the peer-reviewed journal, Caribbean Naturalist. The journal focuses on biological and ecological research related to terrestrial, freshwater, and marine organisms and environments in the Caribbean region.
“It’s that validation of, ‘You did really good work, it’s relevant, and it’s important to the broader community. It’s something people need to know about,’” Bestrom says.
A native of Greensboro, North Carolina, Bestrom loved the water as a child. Even “without knowing exactly what it meant,” she wanted to be a marine biologist someday. “But going to college right out of high school was very intimidating,” she recalls. She spent the next 11 years after completing her secondary education working as a veterinary technician. “I loved it, but I wanted something more.”
Bestrom was long drawn to the women’s college environment, and when she moved to Roanoke in 2013, she enrolled at Hollins. “I met with the Horizon program, toured the biology department, and walked away immediately saying this is where I wanted to go. It was just that friendliness. I loved how Horizon wasn’t an adult program that was separate from the rest of the community. I could experience a traditional college education and learn from students who were younger than me.”
That experience included opportunities for field research and study abroad. She was intrigued her first year when a fellow Horizon student told her about a research trip Professor of Biology Renee Godard was organizing for the 2014 January Short Term to St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. “I had no idea what it was all about, but I applied and got accepted. It honestly and completely changed everything I thought I wanted to do at Hollins. Initially, I wanted to do some behavioral genetic work, but after that first J-term I said, ‘No. I want to be in the field, I want to be in the water, I want to be exploring marine ecosystems.’ It was so fascinating to me, all the interactions between species and how little we still know about it.”
Bestrom participated in the St. John research course each J-term during her Hollins career as well as conducting research for consecutive summers beginning in 2017 with her senior thesis research. “Renee and I were looking at whether the population of elkhorn coral, an endangered species of coral, was increasing,” she explains. “We felt we had seen more colonies over the years but didn’t have any data to back that up.”
In July 2017, Bestrom and Godard collected data at 11 different sites around the island and the initial results were encouraging: The coral density was in fact growing at a number of the sites. “We had what looked like a recovering population of an endangered species. This was important to the ecosystem since elkhorn coral are major reef-builders and they provide a lot of habitat and protection to coastal regions.”
Then, two Category 5 hurricanes, Irma and Maria, struck St. John that fall. It became imperative to go back to the island in the summer of 2018 to determine how much devastation had occurred. “Certain areas seemed to get hit harder than others and the decreases in population ranged from 25 to 30% in some areas to 75% in others,” Bestrom says. “Overall, the total colony number in the areas we studied fell 44%.”
Yet, Bestrom found some positive news for the elkhorn coral colonies: They took less of a hit than elkhorn populations in other areas of the Caribbean, possibly due to the fact that they are located in a protected national marine park and are more resilient.
Bestrom and Godard then combined the data from these two years of study and pursued publication in Caribbean Naturalist. Peer review means exposing your work to intense scrutiny, “especially since Hollins isn’t well-known within the marine biology community,” Bestrom says. “You have to find a story within the data, put it into words, and talk about it in a way that people can understand. Where did your data lead? What does it mean within the general context of the other science that’s out there already? How is it relevant to what we’re dealing with now in society and the issue of climate change?”
Bestrom credits the spirit of collaboration she’s enjoyed in the biology and environmental studies departments at Hollins for bolstering her skills in research and analysis. “Learning from one another is a constant. Renee and I have obviously been working together for a long time and have a great rapport, but we have also benefited from the other faculty in the program. It’s great to be in a place where people aren’t afraid to say, ‘I don’t know, but let’s ask someone who may know and try figuring out this problem by moving through different avenues.’ Being able to say, ‘I don’t know’ and ‘I wonder’ – that’s science. That’s what it’s really all about, and that’s what a publication is all about. It’s not about just getting my name out there. It’s about getting the information out there so maybe we can be more effective in conserving this species. That’s the most exciting part.”
With the coral research on St. John and its pending publication, along with a semester of studying tropical island biodiversity in Panama through the School for Field Studies in the spring of 2018, Bestrom has built an impressive experiential record. Currently, she is exploring graduate school programs, particularly those focused in marine biology at either a Master’s or Ph.D. level. “I’m trying to figure out what direction I want to take with a career in marine biology. I would love to be in the field doing research, but I’m also looking at teaching at the college level. That would allow me to share my passion for the ecosystem while continuing to conduct studies.”
If a teaching career becomes her vocation, there’s no doubt Bestrom’s Hollins experience will inform it. “To come to a place where the focus is so much on the student and making sure they get everything out of their education here…it made a world of difference for me. I don’t think I would have been able to find that elsewhere, and I can’t imagine going to any other university.”
When biology major Ciera Morris ’19 wanted to challenge herself by completing a voluntary senior thesis, she sought a project that would reflect her interest in infectious disease research as it relates to public health. Collaborating with Assistant Professor of Biology Elizabeth Gleim and Associate Professor of Biology Morgan Wilson, she found the perfect vehicle: Exploring tick ecology in southwest Virginia and its possible connection to the risk of Lyme disease.
“Given there are a lot of public health implications in regard to tick research, working with Dr. Gleim and Dr. Wilson was the best option for me,” Morris says. “We decided my project should focus on species composition and the abundance and phenology of ticks in southwest Virginia to better comprehend disease ecology in the Roanoke Valley. This included understanding what tick species are present and what times of the year they are active.”
“Her project has been incredibly intensive involving a year of monthly filed collections of ticks at sites all over the Roanoke Valley,” Gleim explains. “She collected almost 20,000 ticks and did a lot of lab work, too.”
With the sheer volume of ticks involved, Morris notes that the process of analyzing the ticks she gathered will have to be continued by other students after she graduates. But, she adds, “I could see this study being published in a couple of years or so.”
Another highlight of Morris’ undergraduate career was a signature internship two years ago with Climate Central, a New Jersey-based nonprofit organization that performs ecological research and produces nonpartisan information regarding climate change. During that January Short Term opportunity, “I was investigating the impact of wildfires on air quality and human health in California and Washington State,” she says.
Morris’ impressive record of research has earned her a two-year, post-baccalaureate fellowship at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Montana. The facility is part of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a division of the National Institutes of Health.
“It’s a really impressive fellowship,” Gleim states. “Some of the premier research on tick-borne diseases has historically come out of the Rocky Mountain Laboratories,” including the discovery of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
“I’m primarily going to be looking at how pathogens are transmitted to hosts, and how disease development occurs out of that,” Morris says. “I’ll be working with and learning from a laboratory team that brings different backgrounds of knowledge and skills. I’m excited because I think it’s going to be a good transition from dealing with tick ecology to viral research in general. It’s a good stepping stone to where I want to be.”
After completing her fellowship, Morris expects to go on to graduate school and pursue either a Master’s degree or a Ph.D. focusing on infectious disease. Whatever path her career ultimately takes, she is confident her experience as a student-athlete has given her the tools to maintain a healthy work-life balance. A member of the Hollins soccer team for four years, three of which she served as team captain, Morris says her professors supported her active participation in interests outside the classroom while her coaches encouraged her to pursue undergraduate research.
“Continuing that type of balanced relationship with both academic and extracurricular interests is important. It teaches you a lot as you move into a career setting.”
Twenty-seven research projects representing the work of 30 Hollins science and mathematics students were showcased during the university’s 62nd Annual Science Seminar on April 25.
Students from the departments of biology, chemistry, environmental studies, physics, and psychology took part in this year’s poster session, which was held for the first time on the newly renovated second floor of the Dana Science Building.
This year’s seminar featured research conducted in a number of diverse geographic locations, from South America (the Peruvian Amazon’s white-sand forests), Central America (Panamanian coastal habitats), and the Caribbean (biodiversity and hurricane impact in the U.S. Virgin Islands), to southwest Virginia (tick activity/species abundance and emerald ash bore infestation), the southern Appalachians (forest and cave ecosystems), and the Hollins campus itself (avian window collisions and wetlands). Students also delved into topics such as Knot Theory, stock price prediction, and parent-child interactions.
Following their undergraduate careers at Hollins, seminar participants plan to pursue a wide range of interests, which include enrolling in medical school and veterinary school; completing graduate degrees in marine science, animal science/research, ecology, clinical psychology, and chemistry; and embarking on careers in quantitative analysis, wildlife rehabilitation, environmental education, and food justice.
Among the highlights of the 62nd Annual Science Seminar was the presentation of the inaugural Ella Faith Mode Award, recognizing outstanding student research. Catherine Flayhart ’20, a chemistry major with a biochemistry concentration and a physics minor, is the award’s first honoree.
Photo: Savannah Goodbar ’20 (far left) and Autumn Woodbury ’20 (far right) share their research into vehicle driver responses to snake and stick models placed on the edge of two Virginia roads, one surrounded by rural farmland and the other in a mix of forest, residential, and light business.
One of the qualities that makes January Short Term at Hollins so special is the opportunity for undergraduates to engage in a travel/study program. Professor of Classical Studies Tina Salowey and Associate Professor of Communication Studies Chris Richter are leading a group of 20 students as they spend three weeks this month immersing themselves in the history and culture of Greece.
“Tourists tend to think of Greece as a destination, but for this J-Term abroad course, we will study it as a crossroads, where people of different backgrounds have traveled from ancient times to the present,” Salowey explains.
The topics the group may experience onsite include Greek myths that involve travel quests, ancient pilgrims who traversed Greece to attend Panhellenic festivals, early modern perceptions of the territory as a crossroad of East and West, and the related ways that Greece historically has been a site for invasion, occupation, and empire, as well as a point of transit for refugees. Geographically, the Hollins student travel group will emphasize Athens/Attica, the Peloponnesus, and parts of central Greece.
Last summer, biology major Sunny Greene ’19 was part of a research team in the Undiagnosed Diseases Program (UDP) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). One of only 1,300 students chosen to work in the program from over 10,000 national and international applicants, Greene spent 12 weeks investigating a rare genetic disorder called Chediak-Higashi Disease (CHD), of which there are only 300 cases known worldwide.
The NIH experience offered Greene valuable credentials and crucial preparation for achieving her goal of gaining acceptance to one of the nation’s highly selective M.D./Ph.D. programs, so she was delighted when the UDP invited her back this summer to continue her research into CHD.
“I was back in the same lab working with the same people, but this summer’s research focused on a different facet of the disease,” she explains. “Last year, I primarily conducted tissue culture experiments on fibroblast skin cells, but this year I was studying CHD’s neuropathology.”
While the classic CHD case affects children and is characterized by partial albinism, easy bruising, prolonged bleeding and clotting issues, and immunodeficiency, adult sufferers of CHD are prone to experiencing neurological symptoms similar to Parkinson’s: balance issues, motor skill loss, and/or some developmental delay. “We have no idea what causes these neurological symptoms, so I did a lot of experiments on the neuropathology of the mouse models of CHD.”
Greene zeroed in two factors that cause Parkinson’s, the first being Purkinje cell loss in the cerebellum. “This part of the brain is located at the base of the skull and Purkinje cells are responsible for the cerebellum’s role in managing motor function. One theory is that Purkinje cell loss or death might cause Parkinson’s, because if you lose them, they never grow back, and you’re going to lose motor function over time.”
She also explored a particular pathway in the brain that, if not functioning correctly, could create symptoms of Parkinson’s. “An enzyme called tyrosine hydroxylase, or TH for short, is part of this pathway and it converts the amino acid L-DOPA into dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps in part to regulate movement. If TH isn’t functioning properly, you’re stuck with just L-DOPA and you’re not going to have enough dopamine.”
While this research shows promise, Greene says much of her work proved frustrating. But, she found that her experience with failure as a researcher last summer with NIH was invaluable in building her persistence and resilience.
“What I learned from my epigenetic reading is that the essence of research is that you’re not trying to prove anything, you’re trying to disprove something. In order to be successful, you have to fail. Goodness knows, I failed so many times this summer, but I was more prepared for it having gone through it the previous summer.”
Greene was also ready to handle lab politics for the first time. “The research world can be dog-eat-dog and very competitive. Sometimes egos get into the way of each other. But I drew upon my experience from the Batten Leadership Institute (BLI) at Hollins to deal with that, and as a result I feel that someday I can be a successful leader in the lab.”
Greene says she is tentatively planning to work at NIH again next summer as a springboard to gaining one to two more years of solid research experience, a prerequisite for many M.D./Ph.D. programs. In the meantime, she’s enjoying her senior year experience at Hollins. “It’s a time to reflect and enjoy where you are and who you are, and so honestly my goal this year is to have fun with that. I’m taking Latin 101 and learning about Roman culture, and I’m also taking a theatre appreciation class because I’ve always loved theatre, and I’m mentoring students through BLI.
“I want to do things to make myself a well-rounded person. M.D./Ph.D. programs want to see that. Of course, they want to know that you are dedicated to your science, but they also want to know what you’re doing outside of that to enrich your research.”
In the fight to stop the spread of Lyme disease in the United States, one crucial question has baffled scientists: Why is the disease so prevalent in the northeastern U.S., but in the southeast, relatively few cases have been reported? The trend persists even though the blacklegged ticks (also called deer ticks) that transmit Lyme through their bites can be found throughout the eastern part of the country.
Assistant Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies/Environmental Science Liz Gleim, who is also a tick biologist, says one hypothesis has recently gained traction: the possibility that “the northern and southern populations of the blacklegged tick are genetically distinct, and that difference manifests itself in terms of how ticks quest for a host. A questing tick is one that’s crawling up on the tips of vegetation and hoping a human or animal host is going to brush up against them and they can hop a ride.”
Northern ticks have been found to be far more aggressive when questing and thus more likely to get on people than southern ticks, who tend to live in leaf litter where humans are less prone to come in contact with them.
Even within Virginia, Gleim notes that ticks from the coastal, central, and southwestern parts of the state exhibit different questing behaviors from one another. This phenomenon is the basis for a project this summer in which Gleim is collaborating with scientists from Old Dominion University and the University of Richmond to discover what makes ticks tick.
“Ticks along the coast are generally not as aggressive as those here in the Roanoke area. So what we’re doing is collecting ticks locally, around Richmond, and along the Virginia seaboard, sort of an east-west gradient, in the hope that we get populations that may be showing different questing behaviors,” Gleim explains. “Is their behavior actually controlled by genes, or it prompted by three distinctive climates? The hope is that we’ll be able to find out.”
Gleim and her fellow researchers are taking the ticks they gather between Roanoke, Richmond, and the coast, and placing them in what she describes as “tick arenas,” containers that are located in mature hardwood forest areas, the preferred habitat of blacklegged ticks. At Hollins, the tick arenas have been situated in the woods adjacent to the northeastern part of campus.
“It’s a very cool way in which we can take advantage of our beautiful natural forests that are convenient to campus,” Gleim states. “We’re really lucky because the folks who are conducting research in Richmond and on the coast are having to use public lands, so they have to go through the process of working with state and public officials and securing permission.”
Students from Hollins and the University of Richmond will be working with Gleim on the project at the Hollins site. “They’ll be coming out multiple times a week to make observations on the ticks to see what sorts of questing behaviors they are exhibiting.”
Faculty members from the biology and environmental studies/environmental science programs at Hollins assisted Gleim in constructing the tick arenas and addressing a key concern: how to ensure the ticks they’re studying stay in place while keeping out the ticks that already live in the surrounding forest. “We’re putting sterilized leaf litter into the containers so that we’re certain we’re not inadvertently picking up ticks that aren’t part of our research,” Gleim says. “Installing metal flashing and chicken wire will not only help us keep ticks out but also prevent small mammals or wildlife from entering the arenas. The last zone of defense is this sticky material that’s almost like a paste that we use to coat the inside of each area. So, any ticks that try to leave or enter the arenas will get stuck.”
Gleim and her fellow researchers will be placing ticks in the arenas during the last couple of weeks in May. The study will continue through early and mid-July to coincide with when the blacklegged tick is naturally active.
Conducting tick research at Hollins is fitting. As Gleim notes, “Roanoke itself is a major focal point for Lyme disease. If you look at a map of Lyme cases in the U.S., there’s literally this bright red spot on Roanoke. Areas north of here have a seen a lot of it, too, but southward, there isn’t much. One theory is that northern ticks are making their way down through the mountains to the southern region.”
Featured photo: Associate Professor of Biology Morgan Wilson (left) and Professor of Biology Renee Godard work on several of the tick arenas that will facilitate this summer’s study of blacklegged tick behavior and the impact of genetics versus the environment.
Katlin Gott ’18 came to Hollins four years ago with a goal of becoming a veterinarian, and now the biology major and chemistry minor has earned the opportunity to take the next major step in making her dream a reality.
The senior from Fairfax, Virginia, has been accepted at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg, a leading biomedical teaching and research center. The college admits just 50 Virginia residents to its Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M.) program each year.
Gott complemented her classroom and lab work at Hollins by working as a veterinary assistant and completing internships in Roanoke and elsewhere, including a Signature internship in West Virginia with veterinary physician and Hollins alumna Jacqueline Chevalier ’01.
Another highlight of Gott’s academic career was spending Spring Term of her junior year in the rainforests of Peru with the School for Field Studies Center for Amazon Studies. While there, she was able to combine her interests in ecology and animal disease by studying gut parasite loads in primates. Her research project, “The Effect of Environmental Factors on Endoparasite Load and Diversity in Black-Capped Night Monkeys (Aotus Nigriceps),” was featured at Hollins’ 61st Annual Science Seminar last month.
“Our results suggest that human disturbance significantly increases parasite species diversity based on the changes in forest density,” Gott reports. “Future research will focus on determining if the degree of forest disturbance plays a role in these relationships, and if zoonotic transmission of parasites between humans and the black-capped night monkeys is occurring.”
Along with her academic work, Gott has been actively involved in a range of campus activities. Along with serving as vice president of the Pre-Med Club, she has represented the group Voices for Unity in the SGA Senate, and, she adds, “I also play guitar, and I’ve been a part of ensembles and played as an accompanying guitarist for a few choral events.”
Gott will begin pursuit of her D.V.M. degree this fall.
From the Dana Science Building and the surrounding community to the Chesapeake Bay, Caribbean Sea, South America, and Southeast Asia, Hollins students worked closely with science and mathematics faculty throughout this academic year to perform considerable hands-on research in biology, chemistry, environmental studies, mathematics, physics, and psychology.
Twenty-three students discussed their research with the campus community during the 61st Annual Science Seminar, held April 26 in Moody Student Center’s Ballator Gallery.
This year’s poster session featured abstracts for 18 research projects. The initiatives included endeavors that focused on the impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on fish biodiversity and abundance in the U.S. Virgin Islands; the effect of environmental and social factors on black-capped night monkeys in Peru; and the abundance and richness of fish in the wetlands of Cambodia. Closer to home, student researchers studied glioblastoma, the most lethal and most common form of brain cancer, at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, and explored the economic and ecological benefits of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. At Hollins, they examined the impact of the emerald ash borer on the campus tree population; the functionality of prosthetic limbs for upper extremity amputees; and new, promising treatments for Alzheimer’s disease.
Seniors, juniors, sophomores, and first-year students were all among the researchers featured at this year’s Science Seminar. Some of the goals members of the class of 2018 who participated in the event plan to pursue after graduating from Hollins include:
Attending Eastern Virginia Medical School to complete an M.D. degree.
Pursuing a career as a physician assistant.
Beginning a Ph.D. program in ecology, evolution, ecosystems, and society at Dartmouth College.
Attending the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine to complete a D.V.M. degree.
Studying sustainability science and policy through a graduate program in The Netherlands.
Megan David ’18 and Emili McPhail ’18 have earned an unprecedented achievement for Hollins.
The communication studies majors won first and second place, respectively, at the 16th annual Student Undergraduate Research Forum (SURF), held at Lynchburg College on March 17.
The Lynchburg College website says SURF “brings together undergraduate students from colleges in the region to present original undergraduate research. The students’ original research and oral presentations are evaluated by a panel of judges and awards are given. The students gain valuable experience in doing research and get insight into the possibility of pursuing their research interests in graduate school.”
In addition to Hollins and Lynchburg, participating institutions include Liberty University, Longwood University, Radford University, Randolph College, and Sweet Briar College.
David captured the top prize with her paper presentation, “Oh the Places We Have Gone: The Interplay between Study Abroad and Social Media.” McPhail’s second-place paper, “Parasocial Relationships with Celebrities: Finding Meaning with the Famous,” also focused on social media. Both papers were based on the students’ individual senior theses, which were completed under the guidance of Associate Professor of Communication Studies Chris Richter.
Sponsored by Associate Professor of Communication Studies Lori Joseph, Hollins communication studies students have participated in SURF since 2013 and have consistently earned honors.