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  • Northeast Regional Center for Excellence in Vector Borne Diseases
  • Entomology
Courtney Murdock, associate professor, Department of Entomology
Courtney Murdock
Courtney Murdock, professor, Department of Entomology. Photo provided

Academic focus: Ecology and evolution of infectious diseases, eco-immunology, life history, mosquito-borne disease transmission, host-pathogen interactions

Research summary:

A main driver of vector-borne disease transmission is the ecology of the insect vector. Changes in climate and land use alter the ecological relationships that insect vectors have with their hosts and pathogens, resulting in shifts in transmission. 

The research in the Murdock Lab applies ecological and evolutionary theory to better understand the host-vector-pathogen interaction, key environmental drivers of transmission, and how environmental change will affect vector-borne disease transmission and control.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

I am a mother of three small kids, a wife, a daughter, a sister and a friend. I spend as much time as I can manage with my family and friends outside of work. This involves simple things like going swimming with the kids at the Ellis Hollow Community Center, going hiking in the many amazing nature preserves and state parks in the area, picking apples at local farms, and when the weather is nice, camping. We also spend a lot of our vacation visiting family in Chicago, Illinois and Traverse City, Michigan.

What are your current outreach/extension projects?

Hmm, I just moved here and it is during a pandemic, so I do not have much going on in this area right now. I am looking forward to becoming more involved in the Northeast Regional Center for Excellence in Vector-borne Diseases, which is a network of public health experts, researchers and vector-borne disease professionals that collaborate on applied research projects and professional training. 

I also hope to engage the public to be more knowledgeable about local vectors by actively developing citizen science projects and by participating in Insectapalooza, which is an insect fair open to the general public hosted by the Department of Entomology at Cornell.

What are three adjectives people might use to describe you?

During Covid…burnt out, tired, stressed :)

Normally…determined, optimistic, happy, curious

What brought you to Cornell CALS?

I was very excited to join the faculty at Cornell due to the established expertise in infectious diseases across campus. Cornell also offers a plethora of resources available concerning facilities, expertise and support for graduate students that are a real benefit for my research program as well as my trainees professional development. I am also very excited to be joining the ranks of faculty in the well-known Department of Entomology here at Cornell.  

Finally, Ithaca is an amazing, beautiful place to live. Being originally from the upper Midwest, my family is very excited to have moved back north to experience colorful falls, hopefully snowy winters, and milder summers than what we were accustomed to living in the Southeast.

What do you think is important for people to understand about your field?

Mosquito-pathogen interactions occur in a complex, variable world. As a field, we need to move away from characterizing molecular mechanisms that mediate these interactions under standard laboratory conditions. Knowledge of how mosquitoes and pathogens respond to field-relevant variation will be crucial for understanding how vector-borne pathogens emerge, defining the biological constraints on transmission, and to develop new controls for vector-borne pathogens in the future.

Why did you feel inspired to pursue a career in this field?

I apply ecological principles to the problem of vector-borne diseases because more than half of the world’s population is at risk for acquiring a vector-borne disease, and mosquitoes kill millions of people each year due to the diseases they transmit. Ecology is a modern science that is the study of the interactions among organisms and the environment. This field of study provides key insights into how the environment shapes interactions among organisms, their abundances, where they live and our overall impact.  

Ecological knowledge is crucial for understanding and mitigating some of the biggest problems we will have to contend with in the future — some of which include global climate change, natural catastrophes, food and water scarcity, evolution of antibiotic resistance and emerging infectious diseases.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve discovered about Ithaca so far?

How beautiful it is! Also, we were surprised by the number of amazing places to experience the outdoors and their accessibility has been awesome. I think Ithaca is going to be a really nice place to raise our family.

If you had unlimited grant funding, what major problem in your field would you want to solve?

Bed nets and sealing up people’s homes in many places of the world to block mosquitoes that transmit malaria (which kills about 500,000 people annually, mostly in children under the age of 5) are often undesirable because they increase heat and discomfort.  If we could come up with a practical solution to mosquito-proofing homes in an economical and comfortable manner, we could make a lot of progress toward eradicating malaria in many parts of the world.

Learn more about Courtney's work on the Murdock Lab website.

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