Lori Stevens, professor of biology at UVM and co-principal investigator of the UVM QuEST program, describes herself as a parasite ecologist and population geneticist.

Part of her research involves Chagas, a parasitic disease caused by the protozoan Trypanosoma cruzi which is transmitted by reduviid bugs (also called kissing bugs or chinches). The bugs transmit the parasite in their feces by defecating on the skin while they are feeding. The person becomes infected when they scratch the parasite-contaminated feces into the bite wound or the eyes, nose or mouth. Chagas is the costliest parasitic disease in Latin America, with approximately six million people infected with the parasite.

Under most conditions the disease can be easily treated with drugs, but once Chagas disease reaches the chronic phase, medications won't cure the disease—if untreated it can cause serious heart and digestive problems. Controlling the spread of the disease is  . . .  complicated. Stevens is part of a research team Chagas EcoHealth dedicated to understanding how Chagas spreads and how best to combat the disease.

Stevens' team includes researchers in many different fields; principal investigators include parasite ecologists, geneticists, a GIS expert, evolutionary biologists, molecular parasitologists, medical entomologists and an engineer.

“In many ways, the Chagas EcoHealth approach mirrors the program objectives for QuEST: We use a multidisciplinary, ecosystem approach, which is what it takes to tackle these complex problems.”

The researchers, including Engineering Professor Donna Rizzo and Biology Professor Sara Helms-Cahan from UVM, come from several countries, speak diverse languages, and bring different backgrounds, expertise and experiences to their collective work. They all share the goal of halting Chagas transmission by organizing and sharing data, communicating frequently (monthly online and annually in person). They also share graduate and undergraduate students and technicians to work together to eliminate Chagas transmission.

The work is multifaceted, centered on EcoHealth interventions (for instance, plastering walls of houses, cementing floors, and moving the animals into outdoor pens); researching the genomics of parasites; and using “big data” to better understand how population dynamics influence the risk of Chagas disease transmission. 

“The collaboration is based on equality, mutual respect and trust developed over years of working together,” says Stevens. “We’re committed to the idea that diversity—both in terms of the quality of research and background of researchers themselves—results in better science.”