Bats and Biological Puzzles

September 23, 2022


Bioinformatics and Computational Biology (BCB) graduate Courtney Schreiner (‘22) uses math to solve biological puzzles—piecing together information through mathematical models to reveal a complete biological or ecological story. Her career goal is to become a quantitative disease ecologist, and she is combining her diverse interests to get there.

In high school, Schreiner participated in the running start program, taking classes at community college and graduating with an associate degree. That was where she made a surprising discovery about herself.

“I ended up falling in love with stats, which was bizarre,” she said. “I thought I didn’t like math, but stats was my first exposure to using math to solve puzzles, and I love puzzles. That combined with loving biology made me wonder if I could do both.”

That interest in mathematical biology led her to the University of Idaho, which offered a math program with an applied biology option while also allowing her to be close to home.

Schreiner remembered sitting in Renfrew lecture hall for a genetics class taught by IIDS Director Barrie Robison, just a few weeks into her first semester of college.

“Barrie walked up the steps, stopped at my row, and asked, ‘are you the freshman in my junior level biology class? You should come talk to me.’ I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I met with him and he told me, ‘You should get started in research and I think I know someone that would be a really good fit.’”

Schreiner agreed to talk to the researcher, Scott Nuismer, who would become her mentor for the next 5 years.

With her limited math coursework, Schreiner wasn’t equipped to dive into research right away, so Nuismer invited her to sit in on a special topics class about modeling infectious diseases in public health.

“I took rigorous notes. It's funny to look back at the questions I wrote on sticky notes, I really didn't know anything. But I refuse to take them out now because they're too special.”

After that class, Schreiner began her first project in the Nuismer lab. She remembers scouring literature for studies on when to vaccinate wildlife. “That seemed like an important question I thought would have been answered. It turns out that it hadn't been, so we pivoted to answer that question first.”

The results of their study were published in the Journal of Applied Ecology her senior year, an impressive accomplishment as an undergraduate.

Courtney-pull-quote-mentors The same year, Schreiner was applying to graduate schools while working on a project studying self-disseminating vaccines. After earning her bachelor's degree in Applied Mathematical Biology, she chose to stay at the U of I for the BCB Master’s program, and that project became the topic of her thesis.

“I didn’t know this at the time, but there was a pandemic lurking and staying here was a much nicer way to start grad school than going somewhere brand new,” said Schreiner. “Looking back, I also really didn't know what I wanted to do. Now after staying for my Master’s, I have a better idea.”

More Connected Than You Think

Schreiner's aim had always been infectious disease work, but she was torn between public health and wildlife conservation. It was while working in the Nuismer lab that she realized that she could do both.

“Controlling infectious disease in wildlife populations directly affects controlling the risk of spillover into the human population,” she explained. “I like that I'm involved in researching ways to prevent spillover events. Also, understanding infectious diseases in animal populations can help us understand them within the human population.”

Due to factors like climate change, deforestation, and habitat encroachment, human health and wildlife conservation are more entangled now than they have ever been before.

Courtney-pull-quote-preventing-spillover In support of her interest in controlling disease spillover, Schreiner has become interested in researching bats. They are not only a pervasive carrier of viruses, but pathogens also commonly persist in their populations instead of going extinct, even if only a few bats are infected. “I’m curious in finding out what is driving viral persistence in bat populations,” she said.

Schreiner’s first project as an undergraduate studying the timing of wildlife vaccinations lasted her all the way through her master’s degree. Her research evolved to include self-disseminating vaccines like transmissible vaccines, which behave like a pathogen to spread between animals, and are a central focus of the Nuismer lab.

Learning to Ask the Right Questions

Since graduating in May, Schreiner has begun working towards her Ph.D. with Nina Fefferman at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. There, she is excited to learn different ways of modeling infectious disease like network modeling. Learning new modeling methods is a challenge that she feels ready to tackle.

“I’m excited for this but it’s also quite intimidating,” she said. “Nina encourages her students to develop their own research questions.”

One question she is considering investigating is the behavior of bats and how their interactions shape the dynamics of pathogen persistence.

Schreiner felt well-prepared for this next stage of her research in ecology from her coursework and research experience at the U of I. “My mentors Scott Nuismer and Chris Remien guiding me and teaching me how to be a researcher was a big part of what makes me feel prepared now.”

She also appreciated that the U of I and the BCB program were small enough to have great connections with professors. “We have a good diversity of courses taught by some astoundingly great professors,” she said. “And exciting research where students are encouraged to get involved and professors are eager to help.”

BCB program

Article by Katy Riendeau
IIDS Design & Marketing Coordinator