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The Consequences of Transmission Heterogeneities for Disease Outbreaks

  • Full or part time
    Prof A Fenton
  • Application Deadline
    Wednesday, January 08, 2020
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

There are ever-increasing concerns about the threat of emerging infectious diseases, in both wildlife (e.g., rabies, chytridiomycosis in amphibians, white nose syndrome in bats etc.) and humans (e.g., Ebola, pandemic influenza, chikungunya fever etc.). To understand, predict and manage these outbreaks requires a more sophisticated understanding of the individual-level drivers of transmission.

Pathogen transmission is the fundamental process that drives the emergence and spread of new infectious diseases. Transmission is typically conceptualised as a ‘mass action’ process, where homogenous groups of susceptible and infected individuals encounter each other at random. But, the reality is quite different; due to genetic, phenotypic, environmental and nutrition-related reasons, not all individuals are equally susceptible and not all infected individuals are equally infectious. Furthermore, for the same host population, individuals are likely to differ in their susceptibility and infectiousness for different pathogens. Quantifying these heterogeneities, and understanding their consequences for disease emergence, spread and control is vital if we are to develop effective disease mitigation strategies.

Using an invertebrate empirical system in both the lab and field, this studentship will:
1) Quantify host heterogeneities in susceptibility and infectiousness for a range of parasite species.
2) Partition those heterogeneities into environmental, genetic and demographic factors.
3) Develop theory to predict the consequences of different (non-random) mixing between these heterogeneous individuals for disease emergence and spread.
4) Experimentally test those predictions under a range of environmental scenarios.

This project will help provide detailed insight into how heterogeneities in infectiousness and susceptibility influence the spread and impact of infectious diseases. This project will suit students interested in both fundamental and applied aspects of infectious disease ecology. They will be supervised by aspects in both theoretical (Fenton) and empirical (Viney) infectious disease biology, and will gain skills in experimental design, implementation and analysis, mathematical modelling and conceptual thinking.

Funding Notes

Competitive funding of tuition fee, research costs and stipend (£15,009
tax-free, 2019-20) from the NERC Doctoral Training Partnership “Adapting to the Challenges of a Changing Environment” (ACCE, View Website ). ACCE – a collaboration between the Universities of Liverpool, Sheffield,and York – is the only dedicated ecology/evolution/conservation Doctoral Training Partnership in the UK.

Applications (CV, letter of application, 2 referees) by email to deadline: January 8th 2020. Interviews in or after the week commencing : 10th February 2020. Shortlisted applicants will be interviewed for only one project from the ACCE partnership.


Orlofske, S., Flaxman, S., Joseph, M., Fenton, A., Melbourne, B. & Johnson, P. 2017. Experimental investigation of alternative transmission functions: quantitative evidence for the importance of non-linear transmission dynamics in host-parasite systems. Journal of Animal Ecology 87, 703-715.

McCallum, H., Fenton, A., Hudson, P. J., Lee, B., Levick, B., Norman, R., Perkins, S. E., Viney, M., Wilson, A. J., Lello, J. 2017. Breaking beta: deconstructing the parasite transmission function. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 372, 20160084. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2016.0084.

Abolins, S., Lazarou, L., Weldon, L., Hughes, L., King, E.C., Drescher, P., Pocock, M.J.O., Hafalla, J.C.R., Riley, E.M. & Viney, M.E. (2018) The ecology of immune state in a wild mammal, Mus musculus domesticus. PLoS Biology, 16, e2003538.

Abolins S., King, E., Lazarou, L., Weldon, L., Hughes, L., Drescher P., Raynes, J., Hafalla, J., Viney, M.E. & Riley, E.M. (2017) The comparative immunology of wild and laboratory mice Mus musculus domesticus. Nature Communications, 8, 14811.

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