‘Batgirl’ takes on new discoveries in disease ecology, rabies transmission

Like many in our pre-pandemic world, Emory College of Arts and Sciences senior Christie Jones hadn’t given much thought to potential health impacts from the ways people interact with the environment.

Then came an undergraduate research job in the lab of Emory disease ecologist Thomas Gillespie. Her work identifying the mites, biting flies and other ectoparasites on bats helped give new insight into the role that relationship may play in transmitting Bartonella, the bacteria behind several human diseases.

By the time COVID-19 brought renewed attention to other diseases caused by germs spreading between animals and people, Jones was well into her own research in addition to graduate-level coursework.

She will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in environmental sciences in May, then will immediately continue with her research into rabies transmission from bats. She is on pace to earn her master’s degree from Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health next year as part of the 4+1 BS/MPH program.

“This was a new perspective of the role of the environment on animals, and us as animals,” Jones says. “That realization shocked me and shifted my understanding. This new way of understanding the world around me was eye-opening and allowed me to see implications for human health, which was my interest all along.”

A professor in both the College and Rollins, Gillespie has led the 4+1 program since arriving at Emory in 2008.

The accelerated program emphasizes one-on-one guided research conducted while both an undergraduate and graduate student, allowing time for integration of fieldwork and lab-based analyses, finishing with a meaningful, publishable thesis.

Gillespie recruited Jones to the program after seeing her come alive researching in his own specialty, studying how germs jump between wild animals, domesticated animals and people.

Her specific project — looking for a link between vampire bats, pastureland and rabies in Costa Rica — also underscores his “One Health” approach to protect humans and ecosystems alike.

“She always wants to know she can make a difference, and her research is the first step to being one of the people at the interface of health and the environment, where so many decisions we need to make for the future of civilization will happen,” Gillespie says. 

Becoming a ‘batgirl’

Jones long envisioned medicine would be her way to make a difference. As a high schooler in Florida, she conducted clinical research and shadowed doctors.

She completed her pre-medical requirements at the same time she sought the lab research she thought would add a dimension to her future as a doctor.

But working with graduate students on disease ecology in bats ignited new scientific passions. She dove into studying conservation biology, sustainability and, of course, bats.

The same animal has been blamed for shutting down global travel, just after Jones won funding last year for a research trip to collect bat blood and tissue samples from caves in Costa Rica.

Though she still hopes to travel in the future, she used her funding from Emory’s Halle Institute for Global Research to start work on existing samples. Amanda Vicente, who studies disease ecology of bats as an Emory doctoral candidate, gathered the samples on a trip to her native Costa Rica before the pandemic.

Jones is completing the heavy quantitative analysis required to map historical rabies vaccinations/outbreaks in Costa Rica, then will overlay it with land-use changes from forest to pasture.

She has yet to conduct stable isotype and genetic analyses on the bat samples, which will be integrated with the other data.

If all goes according to plan, her master’s thesis should provide an understanding of how forest versus developed land impacts rabies transmission to cattle — and perhaps the humans raising them. Clear data could be the basis for land-use policy in Costa Rica and beyond.

Jones says medical school could still be on the horizon. But for now, her goal is to keep people safe while providing bats the space they need for their important roles as pollinators and in pest control.

“My friends sometimes joke that I am ‘batgirl’ now,” Jones says. “But people are interested in this work now. Beyond bats, I think people are becoming more aware of our complex relationship with nature.”

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