By Margot Emery
Jessica Harmon has what Popular Science called one of the 10 worst jobs in science, and this entomologist with the Centers for Disease Control wouldn’t have it any other way. Harmon (Knoxville ’08, ’10) studies tick-borne diseases. She collects thousands of ticks in the field and, in the process, accumulates them on herself—lots of them. But the work blends the field and laboratory work Harmon craves, and it positions her to help solve scientific mysteries with direct significance for public health.
One such mystery was the newly discovered Heartland virus. When the disease was identified in 2012 infecting two farmers in rural Missouri, the CDC and its partners began intensive field work to find its cause. Harmon and other scientists collected 56,428 ticks for analysis. Their research pinpointed the culprit as nymphs of Lone Star ticks, a common human-biting tick found throughout the Southeast. To date, the virus has only been found in this isolated area of Missouri, but it shares traits with a new virus in China causing a life-threatening disease called severe fever with thrombocytopenia syndrome.
A love of animals brought Harmon to study in the UT College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources. But if you’d asked her then if that love extended to blood-sucking ticks, “I would have laughed,” Harmon says. An internship in Brazil’s Emas National Park through Christian Brothers University and the Minority Health and Health Disparities International Research Training Program changed things. Harmon spent her time tracking jaguars, maned wolves and pumas within the park. “I loved the field work, and I became really interested in the ecology of diseases, parasites and the compounding effects these can have on wildlife health.”
Back on campus, she found an opportunity to deepen her knowledge with researcher Graham Hickling, director of the UT Institute of Agriculture’s Center for Wildlife Health and an authority on tick-borne diseases. After finishing a bachelor’s degree in animal science in 2008, Harmon began a master’s degree that fused wildlife science and entomology and led her to the CDC. Her appointment with the centers is made possible by the Oak Ridge Institute of Science and Education. “I think people sometimes forget how interconnected our health is with the health of other species around us, and that extends to all animals, no matter how small,” says Harmon. Having helped discover the cause of Heartland virus, Harmon is now investigating another tick-borne disease, Erhlichiosis, and is engaged in field studies of Rocky Mountain spotted fever.