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Since it first arrived in the United States in 1999, West Nile virus (WNV) has spread across the North American continent in a heterogeneous manner creating “hot spots” of increased infection risk for humans and animals (Kilpatrick, 2011; Reisen, 2013). Continued and improved surveillance is necessary to protect human and animal health. Factors affecting the distribution of WNV hot spots is poorly understood but may be driven by geographic, climatic and biological factors that determine the distribution of bridge vectors (Culex mosquitoes) and amplifying hosts (some bird species) (Kilpatrick et al., 2006; Colwell et al., 2011). Our WNV surveillance program combines mosquito surveillance for changes in vector abundance and WNV presence, and undergraduate original research to help identify those factors affecting WNV distribution.

Vector surveillance provides early detection of potential outbreaks leading to more accurate vector control, targeted public awareness, and better allocation of medical resources. Surveillance requires multiple partners across the state of Montana to coordinate activities in a timely manner, execute proper handling and detection methodologies, and report results to appropriate agencies. From 2009–2017 students in the Montana West Nile Virus Surveillance Program trapped more than a million mosquitoes, and sorted over 2,500 pools of Cx. tarsalis (the main vector of WNV in Montana) for WNV testing.


Spatially referenced vector and viral presence have been analyzed in combination with GIS data layers of climatic, geographic and biological factors to develop a spatial risk assessment model for WNV in Montana (Hokit et al., unpublished). This model must now be validated and refined to improve surveillance by making geographic predictions on where and when WNV-vector populations exist and pose a threat to human, horse and bird health. Validation efforts will take place at Carroll College (CC), Chief Dull Knife College (CDKC), and Aaniiih Nakoda College (ANC) and will include collaborative research among student and faculty members of the different institutions.

While serving the public health of Montana, this collaborative research program also provides much needed training of students through apprentice-based learning and generation of undergraduate research opportunities and  at participating institutions. The improved science education and research capabilities of human and laboratory resources in the state are valuable, particularly as emerging and re-emerging diseases spread. Providing undergraduate students with authentic research experiences results in students having: 1) a better understanding of the scientific process; 2) greater competency in scientific techniques; 3) longer retention of scientific information; and 4) better preparation for advanced studies (Hunter et al., 2007; Russell et al., 2007). These effects appear stronger for minority students who are underrepresented in the sciences (Jones et al., 2007).

By adding emersion experiences hosted at each participating college we aim to improve real time reporting, technology adoption, and research proficiency among all member institutions. Further we hope to provide students with experiences in new environments that lead to improved training and confidence. We will achieve this by creating an exchange program where research emersion experiences are provided at each institution integrating student interns from all schools into research teams that generate and test hypotheses utilizing skills and techniques learned in the surveillance program. Our program can serve as a model that integrates traditional and minority undergraduate researchers in a state wide West Nile virus surveillance program and their own original research.

Specific Aims / Objectives

The primary goal of this project is to train undergraduate researchers while improving the effectiveness of the Montana WNV surveillance program and risk model.  In addition to weekly surveillance activities we will emphasize intensive week long research experiences where Carroll College (CC), Aaniiih Nakoda College (ANC) and Chief Dull Knife College (CDK) students work together on teams to ground truth the West Nile Virus risk model and perform modeling of their own. This approach will improve achievement of the objectives outlined below.

  1. Process mosquito samples collected from around the state of Montana to track changes in West Nile virus (WNV) vector, Culex tarsalis, population numbers and test for the presence of WNV. Samples will be collected by Carroll College (CC) students, Aaniih Nakoda College (ANC) students, Chief Dull Knife College (CDKC) students, as well as countly mosquito control agents and other cooperators across the state. We will provide samples to the MT Department of Health and Human Services and will serve as a backup lab to test the same samples for presence of WNV.
  2. Validate the WNV infection risk model for Montana by sampling at random locations and by having students at cooperating institutions generate and test hypotheses developed from the WNV risk model.
  3. Refine the WNV infection risk model to account for disparities between the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, and intermountain valley regions in Montana with respect to model fit.
  4. Improve participating student proficiency in the scientific research process by helping them develop hypotheses, design experiments and analyze data.
  5. Increase the interaction and collaboration among CC, ANC, and CDKC faculty and students.
  6. Undergraduate research students will generate and test hWe will work with county mosquito control agents and other cooperators around the state to real time surveillance, reporting of results, and Hypothesis - Montana WNV risk model will accurately predict vector locations.

Primary Contact

Jennifer Glowienka