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Professor Receives Largest Grant In WestConn History For Tick Research

WestConn professor Neeta Connally was awarded a $1.6 million grant for tick research.
WestConn professor Neeta Connally was awarded a $1.6 million grant for tick research. Photo Credit: Contributed

DANBURY, Conn. — An assistant professor at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury will receive a $1.6 million grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control to support her research into combatting tick-borne diseases.

Neeta Connally, an assistant professor of biological and environmental sciences, is receiving the largest research grant in the university’s history.

The grant will fund a four-year integrated tick management study that aims to bridge the gap between tick control research and human behavior with the ultimate goal of combatting Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.

“Many people who get Lyme disease are exposed to disease-transmitting ticks in their own backyards,” Connally said. “We hope to better understand backyard strategies for preventing Lyme and other tick-borne illnesses in our local communities.”

WCSU biology majors will participate in the study through a summer internship program.

The study is a collaborative effort between WCSU, the CDC, and co-principal investigator, Thomas Mather, professor and director of the TickEncounter Resource Center at the University of Rhode Island.

Tick samples will be taken from 200 homes in western Connecticut, including the towns of Bethel, Newtown and Ridgefield, and from several southern Rhode Island towns.

Connally said the study will include spraying the property to kill ticks and placing treated rodent-bait boxes to reduce ticks that infest mice. The properties sampled will be adjacent, and some will receive placebo treatments.

As the study also provides for research on human behavior, WCSU professor of psychology Daniel Barrett, who specializes in social psychology, will assess how people affect their risk of exposure to ticks on their own property.

WCSU student interns will collect the ticks by dragging a flannel cloth through tick-dense areas such as wooded perimeters. As many as 700 ticks an hour at a Newtown site have been collected in a past study, Connally said.

The ticks are then sent to the CDC for testing. Tick abundance will be compared between treated and untreated (placebo) properties; human tick encounters will be recorded and compared using a novel crowd-sourced reporting system.

An expert on Lyme disease and other tick-borne maladies, Connally joined the WCSU biology department in 2011. She was formerly an associate research scientist at Yale School of Public Health.

In her research lab at WCSU, students learn about ecology, epidemiology and prevention of tick-borne diseases through internships such as those funded through the CDC grant.

Connally said there are several diseases that can be transmitted by the blacklegged tick, commonly called the deer tick: anaplasmosis, babesiosis, Lyme disease, Powassan encephalitis and a newly identified relapsing fever borreliosis.

The CDC estimates that 300,000 people are infected with Lyme disease every year and that 96 percent of the reported cases are from 14 states, including Rhode Island and Connecticut.

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