West Nile virus (WNV) is the leading cause of mosquito-borne illness in the continental United States. The virus, which is commonly spread to people through the bite of an infected mosquito, can cause a disease known as West Nile fever. No vaccines or treatments are currently available to combat WNV. Therefore, protection against WNV depends heavily on the work of public health agencies to limit virus transmission risks.
During a recent two-year fellowship with the Division of Vector-Borne Diseases (DVBD) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Hannah Romo, Ph.D., contributed to research efforts focused on WNV disease surveillance.
The DVBD fellowship is part of the CDC Research Participation Program, which offers educational and training programs designed to provide students, recent graduates and university faculty opportunities to participate in project-specific CDC research, current public health research and developmental activities. Romo, who earned a doctoral degree in pathology from Colorado State University in 2016, first heard about the program through a colleague. Her interest in entomology-related research led her to apply, and she was accepted into the program in 2018.
For her appointment, Romo was stationed in Fort Collins, Colorado with the Entomology and Ecology Team (EET) of the DVBD Arboviral Diseases Branch. Colorado has one of the highest average annual incidences of WNV human cases within the United States, making it a prime location to study WNV transmission and effects.
Under the mentorship of EET Lead Roxanne Connelly, Ph.D., Romo tracked mosquito populations and disease spread, placed gravid traps, collected mosquitoes and tested bloodmeal samples taken from captured specimens. The day to day aspects of Romo’s research varied according to the season, as the weather and temperature of the region influenced the presence of mosquito populations.
“During the summer months I was usually in the field setting traps and collecting mosquitoes,” Romo said. “When the days started to get cooler and the mosquito populations declined, I headed back into the lab to test the mosquitoes I had collected. During the colder half of the year you could usually find me behind a microscope identifying mosquitoes, in the lab testing samples for West Nile virus, or at my desk analyzing data.”
The goal of Romo’s research was to address the high rate of Colorado WNV cases by working directly with municipalities, contract control operators and local public health agencies. According to Romo, increased coordination of these groups and improved understanding of WNV transmission will better protect communities from the risk of infection. Her efforts played a substantial role in improving existing WNV surveillance systems and identifying significant disease vectors. Romo personally witnessed the harm of WNV, and she understands the importance of developing better disease protection for the public.
“When I was a graduate student, I had a close friend ask what she could do for her neighbor who had become infected with West Nile virus,” Romo shared. “My friend’s neighbor had developed severe neuropathological complications as a result of the infection and had become almost completely paralyzed. As a molecular virologist, I felt that there was little I could do for him. I realized that while the research that I was conducting during my graduate studies helped progress the field of arbovirology, it did not directly protect my community. I resolved that the direction of my future research efforts would be directly focused on controlling mosquitoes and the pathogens they transmit.”
The DVBD fellowship taught Romo many valuable skills, including how to design and implement field driven research, conduct complex statistical analyses and perform various lab techniques. She spoke positively about her experience and encouraged others to participate in the program.
“This fellowship has provided me with a rich, hands on learning experience that allowed me to broaden my research horizons,” she said. “The practical experience gained during my time at CDC has been invaluable. I appreciated all the opportunities for professional development and enjoyed being in a field that I am passionate about.”
In the future, Romo hopes to continue her research by working with mosquito control agencies or state level programs aimed at reducing the public health burden of mosquito-borne diseases.
The program is managed by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) under an agreement between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). ORISE focuses on scientific initiatives including educating the next generation of scientists and is managed for DOE by ORAU.