UGA receives $2.99 million grant for graduate training program in disease ecology

The University of Georgia has received a five-year, $2.99 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop an interdisciplinary graduate training program in disease ecology.

Led by Vanessa Ezenwa, associate professor in the OdumSchool of Ecology and College of Veterinary Medicine’s department of infectious diseases, the program will provide students with the skills to solve complex problems in an increasingly high priority field—and, in the process, transform the way graduate students are educated at UGA and beyond.

The grant is part of the new NSF Research Traineeship program, which was established to support innovative—and transferable—models for interdisciplinary graduate education in the areas of science, engineering and math, with a focus on critical research needs.

“This important win is primarily a result of the remarkable creativity our faculty demonstrated in developing this truly innovative training program,” said David Lee, UGA vice president for research. “But it is also a tangible result of the university’s efforts to build a world-class infectious disease program.”

The emergence and spread of infectious diseases is a serious and growing problem worldwide, as the recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa demonstrated.

It’s also a problem that can’t be solved with a purely medical approach but requires an understanding of the ecological context in which hosts and pathogens interact. By integrating knowledge across scales—from cell to biosphere—the new program is designed to meet the demand for scientists with this big picture perspective.

According to Ezenwa, the hallmark of the UGA program is a series of courses that will teach students to think about problems in infectious diseases from this integrated perspective.

“Instead of having separate courses in cell biology, microbiology and population biology of infectious diseases, these courses will integrate all of these levels simultaneously using a case-study-based approach,” she said. “For instance, we might focus on tuberculosis as a disease and teach fundamental principles about the causative pathogen and its interaction with hosts, all the way from what’s happening at the cellular level to the global spread of TB and TB drug resistance.”

The grant will support 30 doctoral students in the program, but the new courses and professional development activities designed for these students will be open to other UGA graduate students in the sciences. Students beyond UGA will benefit, too.

“One of the themes of this grant program is to make these ideas transferable and scalable to other institutions,” Ezenwa said. “So one of our goals is to put together an online textbook of our case studies so thatthey can be used at other universities for teaching infectious diseases with this approach.”

Experiential learning is also an important component of the program. Students will participate in internships or study abroad opportunities where they will have the chance to apply their academic training in real-world situations, gaining the kind of hands-on experience that can’t be acquired in the classroom.

Given the breadth and depth of infectious disease research and interdisciplinary collaboration already underway across campus, UGA is an ideal place to undertake such a program, according to Ezenwa. The interdisciplinary Faculty of Infectious Diseases boasts more than 100 members, and the project’s participating faculty span 13 academic units.

Those faculty also bring connections to institutions beyond UGA, like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and the EcoHealth Alliance, that will provide the internship and study abroad opportunities for participants.

The program will also emphasize mathematical and statistical modeling and other quantitative skills necessary to manage and analyze the rapidly increasing amount of infectious disease data, taking advantage of UGA’s strength in computational and quantitative methods.

“Dr. Ezenwa and her team have developed an exciting and innovative program that will not only provide students with fundamental training in biology but also with the quantitative and professional skills necessary to be successful in an increasingly competitive job market,” said Suzanne Barbour, dean of the UGA Graduate School. “As the program is scalable, it has the potential to have significant impacts on graduate training beyond our campus, across the nation and potentially throughout the world.

“Through Dr. Ezenwa’s program, the University of Georgia is poised to take a leadership role in graduate education.”

The first cohort of doctoral students will enter the program in fall 2016.

“Our goal is that when they’re done, these students will understand the principles of infectious disease ecology across scales, and have the skills and global perspective to tackle the most pressing infectious disease problems of our time,” Ezenwa said.

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