Heather is a research assistant in the Zoology Department, Bird Division and the Pritzker Laboratory for Molecular Systematics and Evolution. She is working on several different aspects of the Emerging Pathogens Project, a collaboration between the University of Chicago and The Field Museum, geared toward the study of current and emerging zoonotic diseases and zoological pathogens.
B.S. Zoology, Colorado State University, 2008
B.S. Biological Sciences, Colorado State University, 2008
Ecology and Evolution, Biogeography, Host-Parasite relationships
The focus of my research is on the evolutionary history of parasites infecting bird hosts. My main project is on the co-evolutionary relationships between Brueelia, a type of avian chewing louse, and their bird hosts. Lice from the genus Brueelia are found on the feathers of birds and feed almost exclusively on feather barbs. Most Brueelia species are long and skinny in body shape, which is potentially an adaptation to avoid hosts preening them off. One question that I hope to answer with this research is if Brueelia chewing lice speciate in tandem with their hosts or whether other mechanisms, such as dispersal or host switching, are more important in Brueelia evolutionary history.
To answer this question I have been collecting and sequencing 1400 base pairs of DNA (both nuclear and mitochondrial), from individual louse specimens from a variety of bird hosts. We are using the DNA sequences to reconstruct an evolutionary tree of these avian parasites. This evolutionary tree will help us understand patterns of host specificity (how many hosts a given lineage of parasites is capable of infecting) and co-evolutionary history (whether or not the parasites' evolutionary history matches the hosts' evolutionary history). Right now I have sequenced DNA from roughly 200 lice collected off of avian hosts from four continents. The specimens that I am studying were collected during recent expeditions to Malawi, Mozambique, Brazil, Peru, Madagascar and even include specimens collected from birds right here in Chicago. A portion of the data that I am generating will be combined with sequences from colleagues working on a joint project at the Illinois Natural History Survey and the University of Utah.
My secondary project is focused on blood parasites. Specifically, I am working with blood samples collected from Peruvian and Nicaraguan birds to study the prevalence and evolutionary relationship of several different blood parasites, including Microfilaria, Trypanosoma, and Babesia.
In my free time I also work on two other projects, the first involving a study of the bacterial and viral communities found inside bird guts and the second investigating the prevalence of Lyme Disease in local birds of the genus Catharus.