Over 60% of human infectious diseases originate from animals, and unprecedented environmental changes are rapidly increasing our risk of exposure to new and old animal pathogens. In order to understand and predict the spread of such infections, we need to identify the processes that drive the spread of infections within and between species, in their own environment. This requires a challenging interdisciplinary approach that integrates ecology, epidemiology, phylogenetics, statistics and modeling.
In 2015 I finished my PhD research (supervised by Prof. Herwig Leirs – UAntwerpen) on the transmission ecology of a rodent-borne African arenavirus, for which I combined live trapping, field and laboratory experiments, and mathematical modelling to understand the spread of a disease in its natural environment.
From 2016 onwards, I will be using such an interdisciplinary approach to try to understand the processes important for the spread of pathogens between different species. I will be working as a post-doctoral researcher at UCLA (Prof. James Lloyd-Smith) and UHasselt (Prof. Niel Hens – SIMID), supported by a BAEF (Belgian American Education Foundation) Honorary Fellowship, a grant from the US Dept. of Defense obtained by Prof. Lloyd-Smith, and a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship (EU-Horizon2020).
The main goal of my post-doctoral research will be to model the spread of Leptospira (a bacterial infection that can cause leptospirosis) within and between populations of California sea lions and island foxes on the Californian Channel Islands. Because the spread of this pathogen is exceptionally well-documented, we have a unique opportunity to find out which processes can be important for the spillover of infections from one species to another.