How One Entomologist is Taking a Global Perspective on Tick-Borne Diseases
By Priya Chakrabarti Basu, Ph.D.
Editor’s Note: This is the next post in the “Standout ECPs” series contributed by the Entomological Society of America’s Early Career Professionals (ECP) Committee, highlighting outstanding ECPs that are doing great work in the profession. (An ECP is defined as anyone within the first five years of obtaining their terminal degree in their field.) It is also the fourth in a set of four featuring ECPs selected to present their work during the ECP Recognition Symposium at the 2022 Joint Annual Meeting of the Entomological Societies of America, Canada, and British Columbia, November 13-16, in Vancouver. Read past posts in the Standout ECPs series.
Isobel Ronai, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and was recently awarded an American Australian Association Fellowship. Her research focuses on ticks and tick-borne diseases of medical and veterinary importance.
Previously, Ronai held an Endeavour Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at Columbia University in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology, where she led projects on the genetics and behavior of two key tick species associated with tick-borne diseases in the United States, the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis) and the Asian longhorned tick (Haemaphysalis longicornis). She completed her award-winning Ph.D. in entomology and genetics at the University of Sydney (Australia). Ronai is an active member of the Entomological Society of America, serving in five Early Career Professional (ECP) positions, including being the currently elected ECP representative on the International Branch Governing Board.
Ronai was selected to present her research at the ECP Recognition Symposium at the 2022 Joint Annual Meeting of the Entomological Societies of America, Canada, and British Columbia, November 13-16, in Vancouver. Her presentation in the symposium was titled “Developing novel control strategies for the Asian longhorned tick to prevent tick-borne diseases.”
Chakrabarti Basu: Can you describe your current research?
Ronai: Ticks are implicated in over 30 human diseases worldwide and dozens of livestock diseases. For example, half a million people suffer from Lyme disease annually in the United States, and there are tick-borne diseases with fatality rates of up to 30 percent! However, the development of effective long-term tick-control strategies has been hampered by the lack of fundamental biological research into ticks. I am particularly focused on applying the latest molecular technologies to fundamental research questions in tick biology to reduce the risk of tick-borne diseases.
I am also a passionate advocate for the need for more fundamental research into ticks and tick-borne diseases. Last year I wrote an article, “Tick management programs could help stop Lyme disease, but US funding is inadequate” for The Conversation.
What’s your favorite aspect of your research?
The opportunity to study the unique biology of ticks, which can help make a difference for the millions of people and other animals who suffer life-altering illnesses due to ticks.
What’s a recent research challenge you had to overcome, and how did you do it?
The COVID-19 pandemic had a big impact on what research I was able to work on, as I returned to Australia. I pivoted to starting a local veterinary entomology project on the impact of the Asian longhorned tick and the protozoan Theileria orientalis on the Australian cattle industry, which costs the industry millions of dollars a year. The project was awarded an industry-focused research grant, and I was also awarded the 2021 Henry and Sylvia Richardson Research Grant from ESA. The results of this research project, which I started in the midst of the lockdowns, is what I presented at the Early Career Professional Recognition Symposium. In addition, during the pandemic I took the opportunity to complete a graduate certificate degree in higher education to further develop my teaching practices.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to your graduate student self?
I would reiterate what a wise colleague advised me when I myself was an early graduate student: that a Ph.D. is a marathon and not a sprint. I never regretted making time for what was important to me.
What is one thing you would change about the field of entomology?
Sustainable research funding for basic entomological research. Government agencies are increasingly focused on funding research with applied outcomes. However, major breakthroughs in scientific research occur due to basic research. Continued investment in basic entomological research is needed to ensure the scientific breakthroughs of tomorrow occur.
What’s the coolest thing about your job that you wish more people knew?
The incredible people from all over the world that you work with! As a postdoctoral researcher I have helped supervise projects from graduate students with links to Israel, Mexico, Brazil, Pakistan, and the United States. I have also had the opportunity to meet phenomenal international entomological researchers (from eight countries) by coordinating virtual symposia for the International Branch of ESA.
Priyadarshini Chakrabarti Basu, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of entomology at Mississippi State University and 2022-2023 chair of the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Email: email@example.com.
All photos courtesy of Isobel Ronai, Ph.D.