Ellen Martinsen, Ph.D.
Adjunct Assistant Professor, Department of Biology, University of Vermont
Research Fellow, Center for Conservation Genomics, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute
Ellen has been working with wildlife since childhood, having first started as a volunteer at a wildlife center. Her research interests center on host-parasite ecology and evolution, wildlife disease, avian biology, and conservation. Through broad collaboration and the integration of field, microscopy, and genetic methods, she has pursued the study of pathogen diversity, distribution, transmission, and host switching in wildlife and vectors worldwide. Currently, her work focuses on pathogen spillover into naive host taxa including collection animals at zoological parks, host species of conservation concern, non-native wildlife species, and non-adapted wildlife species at northern latitudes.
Ericka Griggs, PhD Student, NSF Graduate Research Fellow
Ericka’s love of loons and interests in wildlife health, disease, and conservation brought her to the lab after completing her master’s degree at Western Connecticut State University studying environmental and climate related stresses in breeding Common Loons. Ericka previously served as a loon biologist for the Biological Research Institute helping with the reintroduction of Common Loons to lakes and ponds of Massachusetts. Ericka has also worked as a fisheries biologist in Alaska, a science educator, waterfowl bander and technician, and park interpreter. Ericka will continue exploring the impact of environmental contaminants and climate change on pathogen infection dynamics in birds for her PhD. When not in the field or lab, you can find Ericka spending time with her dog Marty. Ericka is shown here holding a day old Common Loon chick.
Lauren Berkley, MS student
Lauren’s interests surround wildlife disease ecology, wildlife conservation, and One Health. She graduated with a B.S. in Wildlife Biology from the University of Vermont and has a broad range of experience working with wildlife including marine mammals, Piping Plovers, gray wolves, and amphibians (pictured here with a spotted salamander). Lauren is motivated to understand disease-related threats to vulnerable species in order to inform wildlife management and public health decisions. Currently, through the study of cervid pathogens, her research focuses on how pathogens are responding to climate change. Outside of studying wildlife diseases, she enjoys reading, baking, playing guitar, and spending time outdoors.
Matt Heilbronn, Undergraduate researcher
Matt’s research interests in emerging infectious disease, spillover, zoonoses, and disease ecology brought him to the lab during his sophomore year. He is currently a senior majoring in Microbiology with minors in Wildlife Biology and Zoology. Matt helped screen Vermont caught mosquitoes for malaria parasites in the lab and also trapped and identified local mosquitoes at various field sites. Currently Matt is in the depths of his senior project on spillover of avian malaria parasites into naive host species including House Sparrows. In the past Matt has volunteered as an EMT, worked in the UVM Covid19 quarantine dorms, served as a Microbiology lab teaching assistant, and spent a summer on a fishing boat in Alaska. During his free time he enjoys beekeeping through the UVM Beekeeping club, cooking, and trying to identify birds just by sound and silhouette.
Sam Cranston, Undergraduate researcher
Sam started in the lab his junior year as his research interests surround vector-borne diseases. Before joining the lab, Sam worked with ticks and the spread of lyme disease in an enclosed island ecosystem. Since becoming a member of the lab, Sam has been busy with DNA extractions, PCRs, and gel electrophoresis to provide data on New England’s mosquito species carrying avian malaria parasites. For Sam’s senior research project, he is looking at co-infections in Vermont’s tick species. Sam spent the summer scouring the Vermont landscape for black-legged (deer) tick nymphs and is now busy with the lab work involved to screen them for pathogens. Sam is pictured here conducting a necropsy on a juvenile Common Loon (we were looking for signs of malaria). Outside the lab, Sam is a member of the UVM club baseball team. He also enjoys playing basketball, skateboarding, and cooking.
Karli Fletcher, Tufts DVM Student and Visiting Scientist
We are very fortunate to have Karli, a veterinary student at Tufts University, join us for the summer of 2022. Karli has been helping with the loon malaria mortality project including diving into archived tissues stored at Tufts University to access samples from necropsied loons across the Northeast from the last 20 years. Karli is also helping with the PCR screening of these tissues to unveil the historical presence and impact of malaria on Common Loons. Karli is also working to help monitor breeding loons in Vermont. Karli’s interests and background center around wildlife health and disease.
Erik Gonzalez, Undergraduate researcher
Erik is a junior majoring in Biological Sciences with interests in smaller scale things such as viruses, bacteria, and parasites, as well as disease ecology and research. On weekends, Erik volunteers at an animal sanctuary, aiding in rehabilitation and care of injured and orphaned wildlife with a minor focus on pathogen spread and disease prevention. He also enjoys traveling, hiking, skiing, and spending time with friends.
Hanna and Lena, Scientists in training
Hanna and Lena are budding naturalists and scientists and provide enthusiasm and entertainment to everyone in the lab and field. Lena is currently studying the incidence of ticks on toads and Hanna is a major asset in the field assisting with mist netting.
Previous Research Students
Alyssa Neuhaus, MS
Alyssa just successfully defended her master’s thesis (Spring 2022) and is now officially a Master of Science! Alyssa started in the lab in 2019 as a junior undergraduate student majoring in Biology interested in wildlife conservation. For her senior Honor’s project she investigated the malaria parasites of the steeply declining Saltmarsh Sparrow across its breeding range and the relationship between environmental mercury exposure and susceptibility to infection. Alyssa then continued in the lab for a master’s project and switched her focus to loons after spending a summer as a field biologist for the Loon Preservation Committee in New Hampshire. For her master’s research, Alyssa investigated the diversity and distribution of malaria parasites of Common Loons across the southern edge of their breeding range as well as the mosquito vectors responsible for transmission of these deadly parasites. Here she is shown holding a Common Loon chick.
Sarah Weiss, Undergraduate researcher, UVM
Due to Sarah’s passion for all things marine it was easy to rope her into doing her senior research project on Common Loons as they spend half of the year on open ocean and half of the year mainland to breed on freshwater ponds and lakes. Sarah screened a large sample of Common Loons from sites across the northern US for Apicomplexan blood parasites including the malaria parasites. She also investigated the relationship between blood mercury levels and infection status with her preliminary findings suggesting a positive correlation. Sarah is now a Master’s student in the Department of Biology at Syracuse University studying the surface foraging strategies of humpback whales.
Yesha Stresha, Undergraduate researcher, Christopher Newport University
For a summer research internship, Yesha assisted in the field and lab methods involved in an investigation of parasite spillover between wild birds and collection birds at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C.. In the field she trapped and collected mosquitoes amongst Greater Rheas, Asian elephants, and Clouded leopards. In the lab she scanned blood smears and extracted DNA from hundreds of wild and collection birds. Yesha went on to complete a master’s degree at the George Mason University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, work as a microbiologist for the US Geological Survey, and is now a Bioinformatics Scientist at the FDA.
Neil Thompson, Undergraduate researcher, UVM
Neil conducted his senior research project on the malaria parasites of forest birds of the Dominican Republic. Through light microscopy, PCR, and gene sequencing, Neil discovered a diversity of malaria parasites in DR birds including endemic parasites in endemic bird species as well as more widely distributed parasites in both endemic and migratory bird species pointing to the possible spillover of parasites from migratory birds to endemic birds. Neil then completed his PhD in salmon genetics at Oregon State University, worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Marine Fisheries Service at NOAA, and then landed as a Research Geneticist for the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in Oregon.
Benjamin Blumberg, Undergraduate researcher, UVM
Ben started in the lab as a junior undergraduate student very eager to get involved in the study of malaria parasites of birds (and lizards as shown here). For his senior research project, Ben investigated the malaria parasites of California birds, discovering many new bird-parasite associations as well as a high diversity of parasites. Ben went on to obtain his PhD in Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health studying mosquito microbiota and its influence on innate immune system and defense against Plasmodium parasites. Ben is now a postdoctoral fellow in Medicinal Chemistry at Rutgers University.
William Pinard, Undergraduate researcher, UVM
As part of a research internship, Will looked at Leucocytozoon parasites in Vermont birds. These parasites are transmitted by blackflies (family Simuliidae) and are quite amazing to glance at under the light microscope due to their diversity in shapes and sizes. Will discovered a high prevalence and great abundance of Leucocytozoon species in Vermont’s birds including owls, turkeys, and songbirds. After graduating from UVM, Will completed a master’s degree at George Mason University, went on to work as a Program Assistant for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and is now at Sandia National Laboratories in sunny New Mexico.
Jessica Waite, Undergraduate researcher, UVM
Jessi was in the lab for many years as an undergraduate at UVM. She worked first as a volunteer, then as a research intern, and finally conducted her own senior Honor’s research project. Jessi is a native Vermonter and loves being out in the field. She assisted in the mist netting of thousands of Vermont birds of over 100 different species as part of an avian malaria parasite survey. In the lab she was a whiz at molecular methods and gene sequence analysis. For Jessi’s senior thesis, she looked at the identification of subgenera of malaria parasites by both morphological and molecular methods. Jessi then switched to vectors and completed a PhD in the Clayton & Bush Lab at the University of Utah studying the dynamics between the malaria parasites of doves and their louse vector hosts (Family Hippoboscidae). Jessi then worked as a postdoctoral fellow in the Thomas Lab at Penn State University and the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics studying the mosquito vectors of human malaria parasites. Jessi returned to her home state of Vermont to work as a Scientific Project Manager at Green Mountain Antibodies and is now a Grant Proposal Developer at UVM.
Alyeska, Lab and field mascot extraordinaire
Ally assisted in the support and protection of all those around her in the lab and in the field.