Last week, we had a really interesting talk from Laurie Baker about her current PhD project on fox rabies as well as all her previous research projects including her Master’s and Undergrad degree.
Rabies is a viral disease which affects all mammals and is spread through the saliva of infected animals. When an animal becomes infected with rabies, there are no symptoms for around 3 weeks, as the virus migrates to the brain. Then, there is a rapid increase of the virus in the saliva and after 4 days the disease will lead to death. The rabies epidemic originated in the 1940s in Poland, where a cross-over from dogs to foxes occured, and from there the disease became rapidly widespread throughout Europe.
The main method for eradicating rabies in foxes is through oral vaccines, which are distributed via aeroplane and dropped into known fox territories. The vaccines are in the form of tablets – similar to dog biscuits – which attract the foxes who then eat them, and are subsequently protected from infection. This method is slightly more difficult in urban areas as the vaccines have to be distributed by hand but, nevertheless, eradication has been extremely successful and the majority of West and Central Europe is now rabies-free!
Laurie’s PhD project is mainly focused on improving the understanding of fox rabies dynamics, how it spreads and how different factors such as the landscape may affect speed of eradication of the disease in foxes. A lot of her work uses simulated data, using computer programmes to simulate infection events in a fox population and then running the simulation many times. These simulations allow her to see how the infection spreads, and also how effective vaccination methods would be. Aspects of geography can be incorporated into these simulations too, to assess how geographical barriers such as rivers may influence the spread of the disease.
Although Laurie is now working on disease ecology, the first seven years of her biology career was spent studying Marine Biology.
Her Honours project was focused on the exploitation of marine wildlife resources; primarily how management strategies affects fishing methods employed by the fishing industry and how this affects fish mortality. The result of her research was that the implementation of ‘individual quotas’ improved fish mortality as it meant that fishing of different species was spread throughout the year, rather than all species being fished at once.
Laurie also did a Masters project on Grey Seals. Her research was done on Sable Island in Nova Scotia, which is home to over 300 seals during the winter! GPS trackers were fitted on the seals and they were monitored to see which areas of the island they covered the most and how much time they spent in specific spots.
Laurie admitted that it was a big jump for her to go from studying marine biology to something so different as disease ecology, but really it’s just all about the research and analysing data, which is what she really enjoys! It just goes to show, no matter what you start off doing you can always apply your skills to go on and do something completely different – and still be good at it!
Thank you to Laurie for coming to speak to us, and wishing her good luck with the rest of her PhD!