University of Vermont

College of
Engineering and Mathematical Sciences

Dr. Rizzo Receives NSF EEID Award

Donna RizzoDr. Donna Rizzo has received a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) award for $2.5 million for research entitled, “Modeling disease transmission using spatial mapping of vector-parasite genetics and vector feeding patterns.” The NSF EEID program supports research on the ecological, evolutionary, and socio-ecological principles and processes that influence the transmission dynamics of infectious diseases.

This study takes a multidisciplinary approach to better understand Chagas disease, the most important parasitic disease in the Americas in terms of mortality and economic impact as a wide variety of mammals, including humans can serve as hosts to the parasite.  Co-PIs include Drs. Leslie Morrissey (UVM Rubenstein School of Natural Resources), Lori Stevens and Sarah Cahan (UVM Biological Sciences), Patricia Dorn (Loyola University) and Carlota Monroy (Universidad de San Carlos).

“I am truly honored to receive this award,” says Dr. Rizzo. “The award provides new unique research opportunities for our students.”

 “This prestigious award provides national recognition for the innovative research being accomplished by a collaboration of talented faculty and researchers within our College, across campus and in Central America,” says Bernard “Chip” Cole, Interim Dean of the UVM College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences.

This five-year interdisciplinary study combines expertise from the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences (Donna Rizzo, UVM), the Rubenstein School of Natural Resources (Leslie Morrissey, UVM), the Department of Biological Sciences (Lori Stevens and Sarah Cahan, UVM; Patricia Dorn, Loyola University), and the Laboratory of Applied Entomology and Parasitology (Carlota Monroy, Universidad de San Carlos).  Students from all educational levels (high school through postdoctoral associates) are involved, learning techniques in field ecology, genetics (e.g., qPCR) laboratory analysis, geostatistical methods, and systems modeling.  Their research efforts will be used to help determine specific community-based interventions that have the largest impact on lowering the risk of Chagas disease.

Chagas disease, a parasitic infection caused by the protozoan, Trypanosoma cruzi, is endemic to 21 Latin American countries. Approximately 8 million people in the America’s alone are infected with the disease, with ~40,000 new infections each year [1]Most communities have limited access to health care and vector control through the spraying of insecticides and house improvements are currently the only means of combating further spread of disease.  Chagas is spread primarily through blood feeding insect vectors, commonly known as kissing bugs, or chinches (in the order Hemiptera, family Reduviidae and subfamily Triatominae); these insects can live in domestic environments such as cracks in interior walls of houses, as well as in peridomestic animal shelters and natural environments. 

Dr. Rizzo is an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Department of Computer Science in the UVM College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences.  She joined UVM in 2002 and holds undergraduate degrees in Civil Engineering from the University of Connecticut, Fine Arts from the University of Florence in Italy and a M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of California, Irvine and University of Vermont, respectively.

For more information contact:  Donna Rizzo <>

For more on this grant visit:


Building on earlier research, a collaborative effort between the University of Vermont (UVM, Burlington, VT), Loyola University (New Orleans, LA) and la Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala (Guatemala City, Guatemala) received an NSF grant in August 2012 entitled "Collaborative Research: Modeling disease transmission using spatial mapping of vector-parasite genetics and vector feeding patterns" to study Chagas disease in Guatemala and El Salvador.

DNA forensic analysis will reveal genetic relatedness (parents, siblings, first cousins, etc.) and describe vector movement, by determining the number of vector “families” in homesteads and sylvatic (natural) areas. The development of new geospatial analyses and complex systems models, in turn, help guide our understanding of the factors most important in human-vector interactions and parasite transmission.  Our modeling approach will explore the interplay between ecological and landscape variables, insect and parasite genomics, vector blood meal source information, and socioeconomic variables, while combining historical and ongoing field programs to build working agreements and relations between multiple universities, public health organizations and communities in the U.S. and Central America.

[1] Rassi A Jr, Rassi A, Marin-Neto JA, 2010. Chagas disease, Lancet 375: 1388 1402.