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Our research focuses on the spatial and temporal variability of pathogens, the spatial dynamics of transmission of disease agents among hosts and the relationship between environmental factors and health. We also develop novel methods to measure landscape characteristics that reflect biological realities. The visualization of these metrics in the form of maps, graphs and web-based interactive mapping of specialized data is also an important component of our work.

Often our work is performed in interdisciplinary groups, including biologists, ecologists, veterinarians, public health managers, and medical entomologists. Some of our projects are described below.

Vector Borne Diseases

Midwest Center for Excellence- Vector Borne Diseases (MCE-VBD)

University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign is part of the Center which is a 5 state collaboration with Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and Michigan, that is funded by the centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study disease transmission brought about vectors like mosquitoes and ticks in the Upper Midwest region. Under the leadership of Dr. Marilyn O’Hara Ruiz, the Illinois team will develop forecasting models and statistical spatial risk maps of regionally important mosquitoes and ticks and the diseases that they cause. Using optimization algorithms, historical data on field trapping of mosquitoes and ticks, and other ecological methods, Illinois will also help determine the level of surveillance data required to make effective control decisions.

The Eco-epidemiology of West Nile Virus

West Nile virus was first found in North America in 1999. From there, it spread across the continent, reaching Illinois in 2001. The GISSA lab is on a team with scientists from Michigan State University, University of Wisconsin and Emory University to determine the transmission dynamics of West Nile virus. We have focused our efforts on an area in south Cook County, where human illness was notable in the 2002 epidemic.



The effects of variable temperature and precipitation on health 
events of people and animals with a special focus on water resources. Weather-based predictions of West Nile virus  infection for the state of Illinois are available as part of our collaboration with the Midwestern Regional Climate Center.


Tick borne Spatial and Temporal risk of disease

Models built on statistical analyses that take into 
account disease processes and the environmental and social differences across time and space. 
 Vector-borne and zoonotic diseases are of particular interest. Representative publications on spatial risk written by our group include several on West Nile virus, including our foundational 2004 paper by Ruiz et al. that revealed why some neighborhoods in the Chicago region had higher rates of West Nile virus than others. This was expanded to consider weather conditions and mosquito infection in a follow-up paper by Messina et al. in 2011. The increase in tick-borne illnesses in Illinois was the focus of a collaboration that resulted in mapping and analysis of the spread of human and canine cases of four tick-borne illnesses – also illustrated by the map to the left.



Chronic Wasting Disease in Illinois deer


Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) poses a danger to Illinois’ White-tailed deer population.   It was first found in Illinois in 2002, shortly after its appearance in Wisconsin. Our work on CWD focuses on detecting and describing the spread of CWD and the environmental characteristics associated with the risk of illness in deer. One of the CWD research efforts focuses on determining genetic variation among deer populations in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. In order to better visualize the results from genetic analysis, we developed this Google Maps application.


Genetic relatedness of deer populations can have an impact on their susceptibility for contracting disease. The Fst values among these populations of deer in northern Illinois help to determine how their genetic structure is related to Chronic Wasting Disease.

Google Maps Application

Genetic relatedness of deer populations can have an impact on their susceptibility for   contracting disease. The Fst values among these populations of deer in northern Illinois help to determine how their genetic structure may make them more susceptible to Chronic Wasting Disease


Health and the Environment

The Florida Risk-scape: Understanding the past usage of arsenic and future implications

From the 1800s to the 1950s, Arsenic was used extensively as a pesticide, including for killing mosquitoes and ticks via in-ground cattle dipping vats (CDV) containing arsenic and other chemicals. The current risk of exposure to people from CDV and other arsenic-containing sources are not known. Thus, the focus of this study is to bring to light exposure to Arsenic in the past and an attempt to determine what the future holds in these areas.

Brownfields and Public Health

Brownfields are found in urban areas where prior industrial uses have left contaminants that hinder redevelopment of land. In this project, we are analyzing health effects that might be associated with neighborhoods with brownfields and benefits that may accrue from development. More information can be found at our project website.