With Researcher Spotlights, the Microbial Systems Initiative aims to introduce you to the breadth and diversity of research interests and potential growth opportunities at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus. We hope that by highlighting both the researchers and their research, we can help you to learn more about and connect with your colleagues to enhance multidisciplinary research and education in microbial sciences here at Illinois.
Holly C. Tuten, PhD
Illinois Natural History Survey, Prairie Research Institute
Dr. Holly Tuten is an associate scientist and vector ecologist at the Prairie Research Institute. She received her PhD from Clemson University and completed postdoctoral training at the University of Kentucky on Wolbachia-modified mosquitoes and at the Institute of Parasitology at the University of Zurich on invasive vectors. She has also worked as a risk analyst for invasive species introductions at USDA. At the Illinois Natural History Survey, she leads the statewide tick & tick-borne pathogen surveillance program in collaboration and supported by the Illinois Department of Public Health and CDC. This program updates our knowledge of the distribution and abundance of ticks of human health importance throughout the state, and tests ticks collected by ourselves and partners at public health districts, forest preserve districts, and other stakeholders for a suite of tick-borne pathogens. Data are shared and presented on Tick surveillance Maps on the IDPH website with ongoing updates, to provide the public and healthcare providers with the most up-to-date information regarding potential tick-borne disease exposure people may experience throughout the state. Other research interests include regulatory issues regarding genetically-modified vectors, development of taxonomic resources for vectors, developing control measures for vector-borne diseases, and developing training and outreach materials related to tick-borne disease prevention.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
I worked my way through undergrad. My summer job in 2005, after my junior year, was as a field collector for ticks in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. That summer work led me to the mentor who brought me to Clemson Entomology and also provided me with the memorable experience of realizing I was covered in thousands of tick larvae. This experience fostered my interest in improving tick bite safety and prevention awareness. In graduate school for Entomology at Clemson, while researching mosquito ecology, I learned my mom was diagnosed with the newly discovered alpha-gal syndrome, which is an allergy to mammal meat caused by tick bites. I suppose it is no surprise I ended up where I am.
How does being part of the University of Illinois and/or the Champaign-Urbana community impact your research?
Being at a public university in the top 20 nationally that is also the land grant university for the state provides a wealth of expertise and opportunity for highly interdisciplinary research that has a global impact. For instance, I collaborated with Dr. Brian Allan, Dr. Chris Stone, and the iSEE Critical Conversations program in 2019 to host a forum of world experts in Chicago for a two-day conversation on the topic of genetically modified mosquitoes. This blossomed into further opportunities that have most recently resulted in my co-authorship with an international group of authors on a paper exploring the value of a global gene drive registry (currently in press).
How will your work help to improve society or reach people?
My passion for teaching and vector ecology research results in myriad outputs focused on preventing vector-borne disease in humans and companion and wild animals. My base metric is bites prevented. Thus, an important component of my output is focused on educating people on vector bite prevention. This has resulted in comprehensive mosquito and tick safety pages that I helped write with PRI for the UIUC Division of Research Safety. Another tangible output was a webinar I gave in April 2022 for Illinois Extension on tick biology, bite prevention, and management. I’ve also written comprehensive safety guides for field workers, such as health department employees participating in our statewide tick surveillance program. I have more materials in development I can’t wait to share with MSI. Additionally, serving as a member of the NEON Tick Sampling Working Group for the last three years has given me an opportunity to contribute my safety awareness knowledge there.
Recent news has pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism, and mental health as major societal health challenges. What part can researchers in your field play, in and out of the lab, in addressing these challenges?
As I recently wrote in an article for the Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, “Arthropod-associated diseases in cities are situated at the convergence of land use, conservation, climate change, and human and animal health, meaning that they are inherently political." Thus, I see research on vector ecology and the prevention and control of vector-borne diseases as an integral part of the One Health paradigm, which by design must integrate environmental justice.
Do you want to tell us about any projects or activities that you are particularly excited about right now?
I want to encourage you to check out the interactive IDPH tick surveillance maps (https://go.illinois.edu/illinois-ticks) where our tick collection and pathogen testing data are shared. I explain how to use the maps in the webinar I gave for Illinois Extension. If you’re interested in any of the papers mentioned here, please reach out to me and I’d be happy to share them. And if you find a tick or other creepy crawlies of concern, I’m always happy to identify it (for free)! I do all the public health arthropod IDs for IDPH.