With Tick Study, Ciera Morris ’19 Launches Career in Tackling Infectious Disease

Ciera Morris '19

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.”