In the Field With: Ian Buller

Ian Buller

Photo by Marissa Grossman

Female Aedes aegypti mosquitos require blood to reproduce. In Mérida, Mexico, human volunteers provide a bountiful supply of blood to feed mosquito colonies that are raised to test their resistance against types and concentrations of pesticides.

Ian Buller, a doctoral candidate in environmental health sciences, focuses his research on the surveillance of rare infectious diseases transmitted between animals and humans called zoonoses. He merges climate science, ecology, epidemiology, and spatial analysis to determine the chance someone in the United States will contract plague caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium—the same disease that infamously swept through Europe in the Middle Ages.

Funded by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program Award, Buller’s work is advised by Dr. Lance Waller, chair of the Department of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics. Buller is currently working on his dissertation, which assesses the accuracy and utility of using wildlife plague cases to predict areas where a human may come into contact with plague in the United States and how climate change may change where plague occurs in the future.

“My project relies on a collaboration with state health departments, including California,” says Buller. "I plan on joining rodent-trapping efforts in the summer of 2017, where I’ll collect blood samples for analysis and record the location of wildlife infected with plague.”

Buller has experience working with infectious diseases in the field and in the lab from his master's degree at the University of Colorado at Boulder (where he studied amphibian parasites) as well as through his research rotations at Emory University (collecting mosquitoes in Mexico, capturing birds in Atlanta, and testing experimental drugs developed from medicinal plants against bacterial infections).

Ian Buller

Photo by Marissa Grossman

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes were collected in Mérida, Mexico, with an aspirator shown here (Patent # US20110088309 A1), which is a battery-powered vacuum that captures live mosquitoes against netting in a cup. Mosquitoes were later taken to the field lab. Ian Buller is to the left, Marco Torres, fellow student at Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán is to the right.

Upon graduation, Buller plans to continue studying the connections between climate, human-animal interaction, and infectious disease, as well as how surveillance systems will adapt as our climate changes. He is a founding member of the Emory Climate Analysis and Solutions Team, a university-wide effort to engage students and faculty/staff with policymakers.

“Climate change is the greatest threat facing humankind,” he says. "Understanding how climate affects us and how we may adapt in the future will help equip our robust disease surveillance system to prevent outbreaks that were experienced by our ancestors from happening again.”

Image of a mayan bed netting

Photo by Ian Buller

Mayan bed netting protects people from mosquito bites while sleeping in their hammocks. This is commonly used in the Yucatan Peninsula. While some mosquito species bite at night and are a nuisance, Aedes aegypti mosquitoes carry Dengue virus and bite during the day.
Image of Ornithological data collection in Atlanta

Photo by Chris Hoover

Ornithological data collection in Atlanta is essential to categorizing the bird species in the city. Some bird species carry West Nile Virus and are known to spread the virus readily (e.g., American Robin), while others (e.g., Northern Cardinal, shown above) are suggested to prevent the spread of West Nile Virus.
Image of lab equipments

Photo by Ian Buller

Consistent use of lab equipment among scientists is crucial for the integrity of research. With the help of Kate Nelson, we filmed the proper steps on using a rotary evaporator, one of many pieces of lab equipment necessary to extract, fraction, purify, and identify the active ingredient from a medical plant. This active ingredient was found to weaken a defense mechanism found in bacteria called a biofilm that protects against antibiotics.