About the Epidemiology & Disease Ecology Core

Core Faculty

  • Justin Bahl
  • Tatum Mortimer
  • Daniel Peach
  • Doug Paton
  • Mekala Sundaram
  • Lok Joshi

The primary goals of the University of Georgia’s (UGA) Precision One Health (POH) initiative are: 

To provide individual patients with the right medical approach at the right time using advanced evidence-based –omics thereby providing optimal therapeutic and preventive care.

The POH rests upon three foundational Pillars: 

  • Pillar 1:  Pathogenesis and Diagnostics
  • Pillar 2:  Therapeutic Intervention
  • Pillar 3:  Health Promotion and Disease Prevention

The POH initiative has interactive and overlapping scientific 4 cores:

  • Translational Medicine
  • Systems Modeling and Data Analytics
  • Epidemiology and Disease Ecology
  • Social Sciences and Medicine

The focus of Epidemiology and Disease Ecology core is to integrate high-dimensional data, including climate change, host biology, vector ecology, pathogen genomics, demographic features, and global trade/economics data to understand the underlying mechanisms and drivers of disease emergence, spread and persistence in animal and human hosts.

The Epidemiology and Disease Ecology Core (EDEC) mission is to support interdisciplinary research and real-time analytics to control infectious disease outbreaks.

The EDEC will achieve its mission by developing multidisciplinary research programs and collaborations within our core, across the other Precision One Health Cores, and across and beyond the University of Georgia.

The objectives of the EDEC are to conduct and disseminate research that advances the primary goals of Precision One Health.  This includes but is not limited to:

  1. Development of cross-scale, multi-pathogen, multi-host models
  2. Integrate multiple data streams to inform public health response to disease outbreaks, including respiratory, vector-borne, and antibiotic-resistant diseases
  3. Support career development and multidisciplinary research through mentored training grants, and collaborative funding opportunities.

Core Faculty

Justin Bahl, Ph.D., (Core Lead) is an evolutionary biologist and professor in the Department of Infectious Diseases, College of Veterinary Medicine, Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, College of Public Health, and the Institute for Bioinformatics. He has developed a cross-disciplinary research and training program focused on molecular systematics, pathogen evolution, ecology, and epidemiology.

His research portfolio has focused on infectious disease dynamics and molecular epidemiology of RNA viruses where transmission at the individual (including between host species), population, and global scales are difficult to observe or quantify. This work investigates how population structure, host immune pressure, geographic spread, and transmission bottlenecks shape viral genetic diversity. Dr. Bahl leads a multidisciplinary research team of trainees and post-doctoral researchers developing novel methods to understand ecological determinants of pandemic emergence, assessment of immune landscape from pathogen genomic sequence data, and developing phylodynamic models for co-circulating pathogens.

His recent effort has focused on developing a multi-state, collaborative network of Public Health Laboratories (Georgia Department of Public Health, Houston Health Department) and researchers across Georgia (UGA, Georgia Tech, August Medical College, Emory) to address data modernization needs advanced molecular diagnostics, and surveillance, and applied molecular epidemiology. This research network has been established to address respiratory pathogens (respiratory syncytial virus, influenza A and B virus), Hospital-acquired infections, emerging antimicrobial-resistant pathogens, and wastewater surveillance. This collaboration will tackle basic and applied research questions and support workforce training needs in molecular epidemiology through the Center for Applied Pathogen Epidemiology and outbreak response, the Georgia Pathogen Genomics Center of Excellence, 1 of 5 CDC-funded Centers.

Daniel Peach, Ph.D. research interests are in the field of vector ecology, with a focus on behavioral and sensory ecology. He is primarily focused on how arthropod vectors, such as mosquitoes, find and interact with resources such as the hosts they bite, the flowers they nectar-feed from (and pollinate) or the breeding sites they use, and the implications of this information for mosquito management and pathogen transmission as well as understanding species and disease distributions.

Mekala Sundaram, Ph.D. is a new Assistant Professor appointed by Infectious Diseases and the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. A quantitative ecologist by training, she began her academic path at the University of Mumbai where she obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in Life Sciences and Biochemistry. Her love of ecology led her to pursue a Master of Science in Conservation Biology at Central Michigan University and further a PhD in Quantitative Ecology from Purdue University’s Forestry and Natural Resources program. Rigorous quantitative skills are required to address all scientific problems today. Dr. Sundaram has developed a strong background in quantitative work by applying her skillsets to problems in different disciplines, especially during her postdoctoral programs at Brown University, Stanford University, University of Georgia and Oklahoma State University.

Dr. Sundaram has worked on complex statistical scientific problems at the interface of ecology, infectious diseases, biochemistry, plant pathology, paleoecology, economics, social sciences, genetics and geography. She uses data mining and advanced statistical tools to explore which animal reservoirs harbor pathogens, where infectious diseases occur and how pathogens spread across hosts. Her skillsets include a wide range of techniques including maximum likelihood models, bayesian approaches, data mining, text mining and machine learning approaches. Her current research interests include disease forecasting and quantifying zoonotic potential of species across the globe.

Doug Paton, Ph.D. Plasmodium falciparum, the causative agent of malaria, is a deadly parasite that is spread through the bite of Anopheles mosquitoes. My lab is committed to developing new and novel ways to reduce global malaria burden, and studies the interaction of Plasmodium parasites with their Anopheles mosquito host, with an emphasis on the sub-Saharan African context where the vast majority of cases occur. We are focused on the role of Plasmodium mitochondrial function as a driver of parasite growth and development within the mosquito – a key developmental bottleneck and a strong target for novel disease-prevention technology. Our research is split between lab-based work with a strong focus on molecular biology, cloning, tissue culture, multi-omics, and experimental mosquito infection, and “boots-on” field work at SREL studying natural vector/parasite pairings, focusing on the interaction of parasites and mosquito during diapause (overwintering).

Research Interests:

  • Plasmodium transmission
  • Anopheles vector biology
  • Vector/parasite interactions
  • Malaria elimination
  • Mosquito control

Lok Joshi, Ph.D.’s research Interests include: Viral Vectors for Vaccine and Gene Therapy: In our laboratory, we engineer viruses to use them as gene delivery vectors. Live viral vectors are known for their safety and immunogenicity, making them promising candidates for vaccine development. Viral vector vaccines elicit robust humoral and cellular immune responses, offering superior protection compared to traditional vaccines. Our research primarily focuses on engineering poxvirus to develop them as vaccine vectors. We have successfully demonstrated the efficacy of a parapoxvirus, orf virus, as a vaccine vector for delivering antigenic proteins. We have utilized orf virus to deliver the spike protein of alphacoronavirus and the hemagglutinin protein of influenza A virus in the swine model.  Research in our lab also focuses on the rational engineering of poxviral vectors to improve their safety and efficacy. We also use adeno-associated virus (AAV) as a gene delivery vector to express therapeutic proteins for gene therapy applications.

Virus Evolution: Viruses undergo continuous evolution, leading to the emergence of new strains that may evade existing vaccines, facilitate cross-species transmission, and occasionally can result in pandemic outbreaks. We use next-generation sequencing and bioinformatics tools to monitor the dynamic genomic landscape of viruses. We also conduct functional assays to understand the impact of new mutations on viral fitness and their ability to evade immune responses.

Virus Pathogenesis and Diagnostics: There has been a surge in the emergence and re-emergence of viral pathogens, both in animals and humans, some of which possess zoonotic potential. It is important to investigate the pathogenesis of these novel viruses using appropriate animal models.  A pathogenesis study entails a comprehensive analysis of host factors, transmission dynamics, tissue and organ tropism, clinical and pathological manifestations, and host immune response to the infectious agent. Previously, we performed a series of experiments to study the pathogenesis of Senecavirus A, a re-emerging picornavirus of swine. Our current research interest involves studying the pathogenesis of emerging avian influenza viruses and their potential to infect humans and other animal species. Additionally, we are actively involved in the development of diagnostic tools and reagents essential for epidemiological studies and the molecular characterization of novel viruses. We develop monoclonal antibodies and serological assays for disease surveillance. We also utilize metagenomic tools for rapid identification and molecular characterization of emerging viruses.

Tatum Mortimer, Ph.D. As bacterial pathogens become increasingly resistant to antimicrobials, new interventions are needed to manage their spread in human and animal populations. My lab is focused on uncovering the mechanisms of adaptation that contribute to pathogen success. We use computational tools alongside microbial whole genome sequencing data to reconstruct pathogen transmission, understand selective pressures during infection, and guide the development and deployment of novel diagnostics, treatments, and public health measures.

Proposed EDEC Architecture

  • Networking with other cores, partner institutions (Emory, Augusta, working with the GCTSA others)
  • Seminars, monthly meetings, grant reviews, etc.

Regular Operations

Monthly Meetings: EDEC Core Faculty  

Meetings will take a mentorship model with a focus on Grantsmanship, collaborative opportunities, idea development, and Identify grant targets.

1-hour monthly virtual meeting (day/time TBD)

  • Establish grant support model (ie chalktalk, internal review, collaborative writing)
  • Progress Update – victories and stuck points
  • Future plans

Interacting and Collaborating with POH Cores:

The EDEC will invite other cores to our monthly meetings to better understand the skills, structure and shared research interests among POH investigators. We will actively pursue collaborations for grant development from the POH community.

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