Professor Michael Yabsley studies diseases that affect wildlife, people and domestic animals while also mentoring students and helping them grow professionally.
Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
I earned my bachelor’s degree in biological sciences with a minor in wildlife biology and my master’s degree in zoology with a concentration in parasitology at Clemson University. I then came to UGA to obtain my Ph.D. in infectious diseases at the College of Veterinary Medicine.
I am currently a professor with a split appointment in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources and the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study in the College of Veterinary Medicine. I teach several classes, advise students, mentor student research, and do some of my own research on wildlife diseases, parasites and zoonoses.
When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?
I came to UGA in 2000 to work on my Ph.D. After graduating in 2004, I stayed as a postdoctoral researcher for several months and then joined the faculty. I initially came to UGA because of the work being done at the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study but then stayed because of the opportunity to work with both SCWDS and the Warnell School—they integrated my interests in parasitology, wildlife and public health.
What are your favorite courses and why?
One of my favorite courses is “Principles of Wildlife Disease,” an upper level undergraduate/graduate course that is primarily taken by wildlife students at Warnell and students interested in pursuing a D.V.M. I take the students on a tour of parasites and infectious diseases that are important to wildlife—either because they can cause population impacts or are of concern to domestic animal or public health.
I also love teaching my First-Year Odyssey Seminar, “Wildlife Diseases: Why Should We Care.” This course allows freshmen to explore various pathogens that they may have heard about previously but didn’t really know much about. I use popular press articles in class to introduce current issues and “popular” diseases, and the course is nearly all discussion-based. Many of these students have become fascinated with parasites or diseases and ended up working in my lab as student researchers, which gives me an amazing opportunity to see these students grow during their four years at UGA.
What are some highlights of your career at UGA?
I am lucky that I am involved with research, teaching and mentoring students, and even some diagnostic service. Thus, I have so many wonderful moments during my time at UGA.
Over the years I have been involved in so many amazing research projects, but two highlights would be our current work on Guinea worm disease that we are doing in collaboration with The Carter Center and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This parasitic infection has been the focus of a highly effective international eradication campaign that has reduced the number of human cases from 3.5 million annually in 1986 in 21 counties to less than 12 cases in two countries last year. Our studies with this parasite are aimed at better understanding transmission of the parasite to people and dogs, and the possible role of aquatic animals in maintaining the parasite in the environment. This work resulted in my nomination for and recent receipt of a Creative Research Award from UGA.
Since 2000, I have conducted numerous projects focused on ticks and tick-borne pathogens. We have investigated the ticks, where the ticks occur, the pathogens they can transmit, the impacts of environmental changes or land use on ticks, etc., but starting in 2017 I became involved in a multi-agency response to the detection of an exotic tick in the United States. Within its native range, this particular tick, Haemaphysalis longicornis, can transmit numerous pathogens to livestock and people, so it is of great concern. Nearly a year later, we are still involved in many aspects of this response. This opportunity has been an excellent experience in how various state, federal, academic and private groups work together to tackle a disease issue.
In 2012, I received the Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities Faculty Mentorship Award in recognition of my work mentoring the research of undergraduates. I believe experiential learning is very important and work very hard to provide many opportunities to students in my lab, so to be recognized for this was very special.
Finally, I have mentored students for nearly 13 years. I have had the pleasure of watching them grow professionally and establish careers that all started when they were at UGA. While I think the research we do is important and interesting and the teaching is great—the best part of my job is helping students develop professionally.
How do you describe the scope and impact of your research or scholarship to people outside of your field?
Most people do not like to hear about the work I do initially, as it immediately features blood or feces or worst yet to most people—ticks. However, in some ways, it is easy to engage people about my field as nearly everybody has heard of rabies, heartworm, West Nile virus or ticks. So if I concentrate on the big picture aspect of my work, which is preventing infections, people are happy to discuss and learn about the work.
How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?
I teach many classes within my specific research interests, so I am always getting inspiration for my teaching through my research findings and new studies by colleagues.
What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
I teach a diversity of students, so what I hope they gain differs a bit. In general, I hope they gain an appreciation for the importance of diseases to the health of the ecosystem—wildlife, people and domestic animals. That is why I teach from a One Health approach; very few of the students end up in a wildlife disease profession, but I want them all to understand that wildlife diseases are important to more than just wildlife. Many of these diseases are also important domestic animals and people. In addition, if there is a change in the ecology of a wildlife disease, that often means there has been a disruption in the environment that can have other consequences.
And for those students that I primarily mentor in the lab or in research, I hope they learn that it is so important to just try something; rarely is it as scary as it seems at the beginning. When most students start their projects they are very intimidated by the field work, the lab work, the equipment, etc. But, I hope to show them that by breaking all of these down into small tasks that their challenges are not insurmountable. So, confidence—I hope they learn that they can do just about anything they put their mind to!
Describe your ideal student.
Excited, passionate and somebody who can critically think through a puzzle. With diagnostics and many types of research, we often are “playing” detectives to figure out the who, what, when, where and ultimately why diseases are occurring in an animal or population. This requires students to think critically and persist through many false starts and setbacks. Being excited about that journey and having a drive to find answers, even when you take two steps backward, are must-have traits!
Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is…
Go to the State Botanical Garden of Georgia with the family on weekends. I also enjoy wandering campus during lunch to connect with the energy around campus.
Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…
I am a homebody, so spending quiet days at home with the family. However, when the weather is good, I very much enjoy heading to the pool with the family or heading someplace outside to see birds and other wildlife.
Community/civic involvement includes….
I have three young children, so time is often short on nights and weekends. But when I have time I work with people all around the world to learn about their ancestors and family trees. I teach people about records that are available, how they obtain them and use them to connect with their ancestors.
Favorite book/movie (and why)?
I am a sci-fi geek … so pretty much anything in that genre. And I do not have to have the Star Wars vs. Star Trek argument because I love them both (but Star Trek is better).
The one UGA experience I will always remember will be…
Being invited to speak at the Warnell School graduation this past year. It was the most terrifying thing I have ever done, but also was very exciting to speak to our graduates and hopefully share my passion for the field in which they just obtained a degree in after several years of hard work.
(Originally published Aug. 11, 2018)