Faculty voice:

Jen Cordes Owen:
Superspreaders of infectious disease

April 23, 2014

Jen Cordes Owen is an assistant professor of fisheries and wildlife and large animal clinical services. She is an expert in the ecology of zoonotic diseases, behavioral ecology of migratory birds, avian ecoimmunology and virology.

The world is experiencing an unprecedented increase in the amount of emerging infectious diseases, which pose significant risk to both wild and domestic animal and human populations. Individuals in a population, whether they are animal or human, can play very different roles in how diseases are spread.

A way to illustrate this variation in disease dynamics is looking at “superspreaders.” These are individuals within a population that are more likely to contribute to the spread of infectious diseases than other individuals. For instance, we find for many disease outbreaks only 20 percent of a population is responsible for 80 percent of the transmission events. Typhoid Mary is a notorious example of a superspreader; she alone was responsible for spreading typhoid fever to 51 different individuals in the early 1900s.

A critical part of studying disease dynamics is understanding the factors that underlie such differences in individuals. But we have little knowledge of why some individuals in a population are more likely to be superspreaders compared to others. This gap in knowledge will be the focus of the NSF Early Career Development (CAREER) project for which I just received funding.

My research program assesses the role of wild birds in maintenance, transmission and spread of pathogens. Specifically, I look at zoonotic pathogens, which are diseases that are borne by animals but also are transmissible to humans—such as the bird flu and West Nile virus.

Birds are the primary carriers of some of the most important emerging diseases that impact both humans and animals and are a good model for studying our question about why some individuals in a population are more likely to be superspreaders than others. If we can start accounting for differences within individuals in such a model, we can better predict the course of disease outbreaks, and develop control and prevention strategies. In this research, we will investigate the effect of environmental and genetic factors on a bird’s response to West Nile virus and avian influenza virus, in songbirds and waterfowl, respectively.

Good science requires the collaboration of scientists across different disciplines. I have the great fortune of leading an amazing team including, Mark Jankowski, an ecoimmunologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and an MSU adjunct professor of fisheries and Wildlife; Jeanne Fair, a scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory; and Matt Settles, director of the University of Idaho’s Bioinformatics and Evolutionary Studies Program.

NSF CAREER grants are awarded to faculty also to integrate their research with their teaching program. With the help of MSU’s Learning Design and Technology team in the Center of Integrative Studies of General Science, we will be building a computer-based interactive lab that will make the factors that underlie disease outbreaks more accessible to students.

MSU students will be able to manipulate environmental conditions and observe how they change the speed and intensity of an epidemic. This exercise will provide students the opportunity to take an active role in developing and testing predictions about the consequences of environmental disturbances to global health.

My research program fits within the interdisciplinary field of “MSU One Health,” which takes an integrated approach toward understanding the strong link between the health of people, animals and the environment. I’m excited to have the opportunity to provide students such a training environment to foster their development as future ecosystem health practitioners and promote their scientific literacy and awareness of global health.