My work broadly integrates ecological and evolutionary biology methods to better understand the consequences of within-host microbial interactions on disease. Multicellular organisms are often host to a diverse community of mutualistic, commensal, and parasitic microbes, referred to collectively as the microbiome. The microbial community surrounding a parasite shapes both that parasite’s immediate phenotype and its evolutionary potential. My PhD research, which I completed in the Mitchell lab at UNC-Chapel Hill, investigated this by focusing on how within-host interactions relate to disease at multiple levels, I studied the impacts of these interactions on parasite growth and replication within host individuals and on transmission of parasites across host populations. In this work, I used computational methods and lab- and field-based studies to examine the interactions between fungal species that coinfect plant host individuals and co-occur in plant host populations. I defended my PhD based on this work in 2019.
I am now a postdoctoral researcher in the Ecology and Evolution of Disease Systems lab at the University of Pennsylvania. In this work, I am still considering questions related to the ecology and evolution of infectious diseases, but I am developing these questions within a new study system for me of public health relevance – ticks and tick-borne pathogens – to uncover how population dynamics of pathogens relate to those of their vector. While Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterial pathogen that causes Lyme Disease, has been studied extensively, ticks actually spread many different human pathogens. My research will integrate distinct disciplines, evolution and ecology, with a temporally and spatially extensive sample collection to address questions like how environmental features impact fine-scale demography of arthropods and the pathogens they vector.
In addition to being a researcher, I am also a dedicated educator and science communicator. In the fall of 2018, I taught an introductory biology course for non-majors at Meredith College, an all-women small liberal arts college in Raleigh, NC; you can view my syllabus here. I was also involved in the organization of a yearly science communication workshop for graduate students, ComSciCon-Triangle.
I am eager to connect with the larger Philadelphia community. If you are interested in disease ecology/evolution, undergraduate STEM education, and/or science communication, please reach out to me here, via email at kokeeffe [at] sas [dot] upenn [dot] edu, or on twitter (handle: @KOKeeffe12). I look forward to hearing from you!