Two COPH students awarded prestigious AOS grants

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The American Ornithological Society (AOS) recently presented two USF College of Public Health (COPH) students with awards to support their research of avian biology. The AOS is a professional organization that works to advance the scientific knowledge and conservation of birds. The awards, each totaling up to $2,500, are presented annually to early-career ornithologists doing research that increases the public’s understanding of birds.

Doctoral candidate Meredith Kernbach was one of two students nationwide to receive the Donald L. Bletiz Research Award for her research investigating how exposure to light pollution can affect the way wildlife (specifically Northern Cardinals) cope with infectious diseases (particularly the West Nile virus). 

Kyle Koller, an MSPH student, received a Werner and Hildegard Hesse Research Award, which supports graduate student research with a preference given to those studying birds in the wild. Koller’s research focuses on the West Nile virus in House Sparrows.

“I’m excited to receive this award, but am more excited to see that people are now realizing light pollution could be a significant problem for wildlife and humans alike,” said Kernbach, who is concentrating in global communicable disease. For example, nocturnally migrating birds that are distracted by lights at night can end up dying by crashing into glass. And sea turtles are deterred from nesting on illuminated beaches.”

PhD candidate Meredith Kernbach with House Sparrow. (Photo courtesy of Kernbach)

Kernbach says she’ll use her $2,500 award to purchase supplies and materials to continue her research on how exposure to light at night may cause Northern Cardinals to maintain higher levels of the West Nile virus for longer periods of time. 

“From previous research, we have found this to be true in House Sparrows,” said Kernbach, who notes this higher and longer-lasting virus load gives biting mosquitoes ample opportunity to transmit the virus from the birds to humans. “We want to see if this is also true in Cardinals, because they are much more common in ‘peri-urban’ areas.”

Light, says Kernbach, can suppress melatonin, which helps regulate multiple parts of the immune system. Light at night can also affect circadian rhythms, which, in turn, can tamp down antiviral responses and increase infection. 

“This grant will help me conduct this study on Cardinals and learn whether light pollution is generating some negative consequences on peri-urban birds, and if that will have public health implications,” commented Kernbach. “I hope it points us in a direction that will help us make suggestions to public works departments and others to change nighttime lighting. Many birds are reservoirs for infectious diseases that can spillover and infect humans. We have to consider how wildlife health can have consequences for zoonotic disease spread.”

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health