Campus News

Sonia Altizer named UGA Athletic Association Professor in Ecology

Sonia Altizer's research focuses on animal-disease interactions in butterflies

Athens, Ga. – Sonia Altizer, a professor and associate dean for academic affairs in the Odum School of Ecology, has been named the University of Georgia Athletic Association Professor in Ecology.

Altizer studies the ecology and evolution of infectious diseases. Working with diverse systems ranging from monarch butterflies to vampire bats, Altizer and her students explore questions about host-parasite interactions, the relationship of animal behavior and disease and the impact of human-caused environmental changes on infectious disease dynamics.

Altizer’s work has advanced the science of disease ecology and yielded information with implications for wildlife conservation and human health. One project, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, explores how human activity affects the spread of rabies in vampire bats in Peru. As cattle ranches expand into previously undeveloped forest areas, they provide vampire bats with a new source of food in the form of livestock—and bring them into greater contact with people. Work in Altizer’s lab showed that contrary to the conventional wisdom, efforts to prevent the spread of rabies by culling vampire bat colonies could actually be making the problem worse, information that could help Peru’s ministry of health fight the disease more effectively.

Another NSF-funded project focused on animal migrations and the spread of disease. Altizer and her students showed that monarch butterfly populations that undertake the longest migrations have fewer, and less virulent, parasites than those that stay put. Migration allows animals to escape parasite-laden habitats and also culls infected individuals that can’t withstand the lengthy journey. Because migration for monarchs—and many other species—is declining due to human activities, understanding the relationship between disease and migration is increasingly important.

“It’s an honor to have the opportunity to appoint Sonia Altizer to the first Athletic Association Professorship in Ecology,” said John Gittleman, dean of the Odum School. “Sonia represents the best of today’s academic scholarship by combining extraordinary research and teaching while giving back in every way through multiple forms of service to the university. We are very grateful to the Athletic Association for rewarding one of UGA’s best.”

Altizer places great emphasis on teaching and mentoring students at the graduate and undergraduate level. She has taught First Year Odyssey courses and introductory ecology for non-science majors as well as upper-level classes on the ecology and evolution of infectious diseases. Her graduate students have received awards including National Science Foundation fellowships, a Fulbright Scholarship and the inaugural Science and SciLife Lab Prize for Young Scientists.

She engages in public service and outreach through Project Monarch Health, a citizen-science project Altizer initiated in 2006. Project volunteers—many of them schoolchildren—from across the U.S. and Canada collect non-destructive samples from wild monarch butterflies in their own yards. She and her students test the samples for parasites, which gives them a snapshot of where and when infection levels are highest, while providing a platform to teach participants about scientific principles.

“I am very grateful to the UGA Athletic Association for supporting this professorship,” Altizer said. “It is hard for me to imagine being at a better place than the University of Georgia, and I am fortunate to interact with wonderful colleagues and amazing students here.”

Altizer has been recognized for her innovative research by the National Science Foundation with a Faculty Early Career Development Program award and a Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering, the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on scientists and engineers in the early stages of their careers. She also has received awards for excellence in teaching from the Odum School and UGA.

Altizer received her doctorate in ecology from the University of Minnesota and conducted postdoctoral research at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Princeton University. She came to UGA in 2005 after four years on the Emory University faculty.