Sánchez, Ph.D. ‘19, studies how urbanization affects wildlife behavior and zoonotic disease transmission

By Trippe Ross

How does human activity and urbanization affect wildlife movement and behavior? How can features of urban landscapes influence the transmission of disease among wildlife and humans? These are just a few of the questions Dr. Cecilia Sánchez seeks to answer in her research.

Dr. Sanchez poses with a grey-headed flying fox, a large fruit bat
Sánchez poses with a grey-headed flying fox in Adelaide, South Australia
Photo credit: Wayne Boardman

Sánchez, a recent Ph.D. graduate and current postdoctoral researcher in the Odum School of Ecology, developed an early interest in wildlife disease as an undergraduate at Yale University. Through an evolutionary medicine course that encouraged international lab work, Sánchez had her first opportunity to conduct research on zoonotic diseases (those transmitted from animals to humans). She spent a summer studying large fruit bats (also known as flying foxes) and their viruses at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) in Geelong, Victoria. After earning her B.S. in Biology, Sánchez returned to Australia to volunteer with AAHL for a year, solidifying her passion for flying foxes and disease ecology more broadly.

Sánchez came to UGA in 2014 as a Ph.D. student in the Altizer lab, attracted by Dr. Altizer’s history of exceptional disease ecology research, previous and ongoing bat research in the lab, and a strong lab community. During her program, Sánchez continued her research on flying foxes, expanding beyond disease to also study movement and contaminant exposure. One of her biggest projects involved using GPS technology to track the movements of flying foxes living in Adelaide, a large city in Australia. Understanding the movement of flying foxes in urban areas has important implications for human health, as bats are reservoirs for a number of viruses that can cause fatal disease in humans. The health of flying foxes can also be affected by living in urban areas; for example, by being exposed to heavy metals or pesticides. 

In addition to her research commitments, Sánchez has become an integral part of the Athens community through playing roller derby with the Classic City Rollergirls, and as one of the founders of Women in Science (WiSci) at UGA. WiSci works to promote equality in the sciences through mentoring, networking, and career development; Sánchez led the group for two years as President.

In summer 2019, approaching her graduation, Sánchez sought to put her ecology expertise to use in a non-academic setting, and took on a 3-month paid internship with the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. This experience was funded by the NSF INTERN program, which aims to provide rising scientists with non-academic research experiences. 

Working with Dr. Maureen Murray, a wildlife disease ecologist co-affiliated with the Urban Wildlife Institute and the Davee Center for Epidemiology and Endocrinology at the Lincoln Park Zoo, Sánchez developed a project to identify spatial and temporal predictors of rat complaints in Chicago. Previous work led by Murray showed that rat complaints are a strong predictor of actual rat abundance. Sánchez used the Chicago Data Portal, a database that publicly archives a variety of community information, to identify a number of potential predictors of rat complaints, such as human population density, the number of restaurants in an area, the presence of building construction, and season. 

Sánchez then developed statistical models to determine which predictors best explained the number of rat complaints. The results suggest that rat complaints (and therefore rat abundance) are associated with both human activity and environmental factors. This could mean that rat control efforts need to be multi-pronged to be successful. Sánchez and Murray are working to publish these results soon. 

Dr. Sanchez poses with colleagues during her internship at the Lincoln Park Zoo
Sánchez (left) poses with Dr. Maureen Murray (right) and fellow Lincoln Park Zoo intern Dr. Nora Ortinau (middle)

Sánchez reports that her internship was one of the most positive experiences of her Ph.D. program. During her time at Lincoln Park Zoo, Sánchez had the opportunity to network with other interns and senior zoo employees including the president and zoo director, and participate in the zoo’s educational programs including academic panels and guest lectures. Further, Sánchez feels that the computational skills she developed in her Ph.D. program were of benefit to the zoo, and that working at the zoo strengthened her desire to pursue a research career at a non-academic institution. 

 After defending her Ph.D. in fall 2019, Sánchez joined the Drake lab at the Odum School of Ecology as a postdoctoral researcher. She is an active member of the Center for the Ecology of Infectious Diseases, where she continues her research on zoonotic disease, and has been contributing to ongoing efforts to understand the current COVID-19 pandemic. 

Having had an exceptional experience during her Ph.D. program, Sánchez has several words of wisdom for rising scientists:

  • Apply for many small grants during your program – this is a useful way to distill ideas and gain experience in grant writing that will come in handy when applying for larger grants down the line. 
  • Collaborate with scientists who are reliable, communicative, and hard-working – this can lead to enjoyable and productive collaborations. 
  • Focus on your own progress without comparing yourself to others, as all students are coming from different backgrounds. 
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for advice from peers and mentors, as they may have insight from similar experiences or challenges.