Camille Harris of Ridgeland, Miss., a graduate student in biological sciences, has been awarded a prestigious National Institutes of Health (NIH) Graduate Research Fellowship for her study of forest disturbance and its ecological impacts on LaCrosse Virus, a mosquito-borne disease that can cause seizures, coma, paralysis, and permanent brain damage in severe cases.

Harris, a wildlife veterinarian, is pursuing her doctoral degree in the College of Science at Virginia Tech. The award from the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, is a two-year, $30,000 fellowship for Harris to study habitat disturbance, disease ecology, and the role of invasive species in transmission of the virus.

During an average year, about 75 cases of LaCrosse encephalitis (LAC) are reported to the Centers for Disease Control. Most cases occur in children under the age of 16. LAC virus is a pathogen cycled between the daytime-biting treehole mosquito and vertebrate hosts such as chipmunks and tree squirrels in deciduous forest habitats.

“As a clinical wildlife veterinarian, I recognize the need for a one-medicine approach to zoonotic and emerging infectious disease,” Harris said. “This approach is at the nexus of the fields of human health, animal health, and ecosystem health.” Zoonotics is the study of diseases that can be transmitted from other vertebrate animals to humans.

Her research is titled “Ecological Impacts of Forest Disturbance on Lacrosse Virus Dynamics.”

Harris is advised by biological sciences assistant professor Dana Hawley. “Camille’s research is unusually compelling because she is using experimentally logged forest plots to examine the effects of habitat on disease vector distributions,” Hawley said. Past studies have made broad links between habitat change and disease dynamics, but the underlying mechanisms are usually unknown. Camille is studying how logging alone influences mosquito vector distributions and resulting disease dynamics.”

Harris earned a master’s of science and a doctorate of veterinary medicine at Mississippi State University. Once she completes her Ph.D., Harris says she plans to pursue postdoctoral training in disease ecology.