Montana State University

MSU doctoral student receives Fulbright to study giant bats and their role in contagions

May 9, 2017 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service

Maureen Kessler, a Ph.D. student in ecology at MSU, has won a Fulbright to study giant Australian bats commonly called flying foxes, and their role in the spread of Hendra virus. Kessler said the virus infects horses and humans in Australia, but understanding the virus’ system may hold clues to understanding other contagions, such as SARS, MERS and Ebola. MSU photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez.

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A Montana State University graduate student has received a Fulbright Fellowship to study giant fruit bats in Australia to better understand how pandemic disease begins and spreads.

Maureen Kessler, a Ph.D. student in ecology at MSU who studies zoonotic disease, or disease that spreads between animals and people, has won a Fulbright to study Pteropus, a genus of bats commonly called flying foxes, and their role in the spread of Hendra virus. Although potentially deadly, the virus rarely infects humans, primarily infecting horses in Australia. However, Kessler said understanding the virus’ system may hold clues to understanding other contagions that do pose threats to humans, such as SARS, MERS and Ebola.

While flying foxes are not found in Montana, one of the world’s experts on the bats is.

 Kessler, a native of Los Lunas, New Mexico, came to MSU following receiving a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to work with Raina Plowright, MSU assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the College of Agriculture and an international expert on infectious diseases spread by bats. Kessler’s bachelor’s degree is in biology from New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. Her combination of public health and ecology backgrounds made Kessler a prime candidate for the Fulbright, Plowright said.

“Maureen is an excellent student whose research is at the interface of public health and environmental change,” Plowright said. “She will be working on a high profile bat-virus system that is considered a model system for Ebola, Marburg and Nipah virus--all pathogens that are potential pandemic threats.”

Plowright, who received her degree in veterinary medicine in Australia, said the Australian Fulbright is “one of the hardest to get, given the popularity of the country.”

Kessler has worked in Plowright’s Bozeman Disease Ecology Lab since arriving at MSU in 2015. While in Australia, she will work on her dissertation, centering on the ecological factors that have resulted in a loss of the flying fox population in recent decades due to loss of native habitat. That loss also has disrupted the bats’ migration patterns, Kessler said, resulting in increased settlements in urban centers where there is more contact with humans and horses. Kessler will also study how urbanization increases risk of Hendra virus spillover from reservoir populations of the flying fox. While netting the large bats can be tricky because they have a wing span of up to 4 feet, Kessler has developed an affinity for them.

“They are the cutest bats, in my opinion,” Kessler said, adding that “We are very careful when we handle them.”

Kessler said that even though the bats and the diseases that she’ll study are specific to Australia, there are important applications to all humans as science examines how contagions develop and spread. And, she said there are other parallels to disease systems found in Montana mammals, such as elk migration patterns and the development of brucellosis.

Kessler said she became interested in the role of bats in disease ecology while studying malaria in Africa at the time Ebola broke out. After she earned her master’s degree, she sought a way to combine her interest for ecology as it affects public health and infectious disease into one project.

“I was really interested in using research to guide policies that will protect both public health and the environment, and I knew I wanted to work with Raina,” Kessler said of Plowright, who also did her doctoral dissertation on infectious diseases in flying fox bats.

Kessler will begin her 10-month Fulbright in January. However, her flying fox research and work with Plowright and her lab will also take her to Australia this summer.

Ilse-Mari Lee (406) 994-4689, ilselee@montana.edu