Battling Lyme Disease

Graduate student launches research project from the ground up

Photo: Mike Peters

Heather Kopsco

Montclair State graduate student Heather Kopsco takes Lyme disease personally. “I contracted it the first time in the fall of 2011, after a summer spent outdoors,” she recalls. “I was sick for months with incredible fatigue and horrible joint and muscle pain. I had what my doctor referred to as ‘post-Lyme syndrome,’ where symptoms of the disease persist beyond the treatment period despite negative blood results for an active infection.”

Just last summer, while working as a field intern in prime tick habitat in New Jersey, she became infected for a second time. “Since I caught it earlier this time, I had nowhere near the intensity of symptoms, nor the duration,” says Kopsco, who expects to receive her master’s degree in biology in 2014.

Her initial experience with Lyme disease is at the root of her thesis project that is studying the role birds play in the transmission of the disease. “When I first contracted the disease, I knew little more than it was a bacterial infection spread by ticks, so I began doing a lot of research,” the graduate assistant recalls.

Her early research yielded some surprising results. “I learned that European studies were examining not only the role birds played in spreading ticks during movements and migrations, but also were finding birds were capable of sustaining an infection caused by Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. Yet no one had investigated the presence of the bacteria in wild birds in New Jersey.”

Today, Kopsco’s research is supported with $8,000 raised through an online crowdfunding campaign she launched on Microryza. At a time when competition is fierce for grant funding, crowdfunding is becoming an increasingly viable source of support for research scientists. Kopsco is the first Montclair State University student to obtain funding through crowdsourcing for a science research project.

Through individual contributions from friends, family and other donors that averaged $97.50, she met her fundraising goal of $8,000 within hours of her four-month campaign’s deadline. “The funds will cover both field and laboratory equipment,” Kopsco explains.

For a student, it can be difficult to receive funding from traditional sources such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) is difficult. The University is establishing an internal process that will facilitate targeted fundraising for both student and faculty research projects.

“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. “I seriously underestimated the amount of work necessary for a successful campaign.”

Kight applauds her 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!”

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

“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,” says Smallwood. “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 – looking at whether they carry Lyme disease is a great question to ask.”

According to Smallwood, Kopsco is looking for as many bird species as she can catch. So far, she has taken blood samples from about 40 birds. “The samples are in a freezer at the University,” says Smallwood. “We’re equipped to process about 200 samples.”

Endemic to the northeastern U.S., Lyme disease is transmitted by infected ticks carried by white-footed mice and deer. “Birds are extremely mobile and migrate long distances,” Kopsco 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 will continue field collection throughout January and into the spring, with lab analysis continuing at the same time. “Lyme disease is a growing epidemic in our country – the CDC raised their annual estimated infection rate from 30,000 to 300,000 a few months ago,” she explains. “This is something I care about a great deal. My hope is that greater understanding of how the disease is moving will eventually lead to quicker diagnosis and treatment.”