Crowdfunding to Study Lyme Disease

Graduate student researches the role birds play in disease

For Montclair State graduate student Heather Kopsco, the research she’s conducting on Lyme disease is both academic and personal. She contracted the disease in the fall of 2011 and her symptoms continued long after treatment. "I had what my doctor referred to as 'post-Lyme syndrome,'" she says. "I was sick for months with incredible fatigue and horrible joint and muscle pain."

Then last summer, while working as a field intern in prime tick habitat in New Jersey, she became infected for a second time. "I was lucky that I developed another rash — not everyone gets one — so knew I'd been bitten again,"says Kopsco, who expects to receive her master’s in biology this year.

Her thesis project, which is supported by money raised in an online crowdfunding campaign, looks at the role that birds play in the transmission of Lyme disease. When she first began the research, she learned that European researchers were studying the role birds play in spreading ticks during movements and migration, finding that birds can sustain an infection caused by the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. "Yet no one had investigated the presence of the bacteria in wild birds in New Jersey," says Kopsco. 

"If birds are indeed carrying not only ticks, but the bacterium, this has huge implications for the range map and human risk of Lyme infection."

-Heather Kopsco
Graduate Student 

Through her crowdfunding campaign on Microryza, Kopsco raised $8,000 to pay for essential field and laboratory equipment. She is the first Montclair State University student to obtain funding through crowdsourcing for a science research project.

At a time when competition is fierce for grant money, crowdfunding is becoming an increasingly viable source of support for research scientists, especially students, who find it difficult to receive funding from traditional sources such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of?Health (NIH).

“Crowdfunding is an innovative way of solving a funding problem when it is tough to get money from conventional granting agencies,” says Biology and Molecular Biology Professor Scott Kight, who is a member of Kopsco’s thesis advisory committee.

Running a successful crowdfunding campaign is a major undertaking. “It essentially amounted to a part-time job in terms of advertising, updating social media, contacting donors and monitoring science and news channels for pertinent articles,” Kopsco says.

Kight applauds Kopsco’s initiative and commitment. “Heather didn’t wait around for someone else to make it happen. She went out and convinced donors that her work was important and worth kicking in some dollars,” he says. “Here we have a relatively young scientist taking the bull by the horns to get some real science done.”

Montclair State, along with universities such as Harvard and UCLA, is in the vanguard of schools supporting innovative, focused fundraising. The University is establishing an internal process that will facilitate targeted fundraising for both student and faculty research projects.

Kopsco graduated from Rutgers University in 2008 with a BA in English. Realizing that wildlife and science were her real passions, she eventually earned a second bachelor’s degree in biology from Montclair State.

"Birds can carry disease - asking whether they carry Lyme disease is a great question."

- Professor John Smallwood

“I got to know Heather as an undergraduate,” says her thesis advisor, Biology and Molecular Biology Professor John Smallwood, whose own work focuses on the conservation of non-game birds such as kestrels. “All of us are looking for students like Heather,” he says. “She is a very bright and capable student who is at the top of her field in terms of initiative.”

Smallwood notes that Kopsco’s thesis project is her own idea. “She came to me with her idea from the beginning and asked me to advise her. Birds can carry disease --- asking whether they carry Lyme disease is a great question.”

According to Smallwood, Kopsco is looking for as many bird species as she can catch. So far, she has taken blood samples from about 43 birds. “The samples are in a -80º freezer at the University,” says Smallwood. “We’re equipped to process about 200 samples.”

Endemic to the northeastern U.S., with an infection rate of seven in 100,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control, Lyme disease is transmitted by infected ticks carried by white-footed mice and deer. “Birds are extremely mobile and migrate long distances,” she notes. “If birds are indeed carrying not only ticks, but the Borrelia burgdoferi bacterium, this has huge implications for the range map and human risk of Lyme infection.”

Kopsco continued her field collection throughout January and into the spring, with lab analysis continuing at the same time. “My hope is that greater understanding of how the disease is moving will eventually lead to quicker diagnosis and treatment.”

Kopsco has her eye to the future, aiming to eventually publish her study. Once she receives her master’s degree, she plans to continue to conduct research as a wildlife biologist. “I’d love to work with an organization that focuses on wildlife/zoonotic diseases,” she adds. And, she says, she would definitely turn to crowdfunding again for help in supporting her research efforts.