New faculty profile: Adela Oliva Chavez studies tick vector biology and disease control

Adela Oliva Chavez joined the UW–Madison faculty in January 2024 as an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology.

What is your hometown? Where did you grow up?
I am originally from Honduras and grew up part of the time in a small town called El Naranjal, close to Juticalpa in Olancho (the biggest state in Honduras), and in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. 

What is your educational/professional background, including your previous position?
I have a bachelor’s in agricultural engineering from the Panamerican School of Agriculture, which I completed in 2003. I moved to the U.S. in 2004 and did a master’s and Ph.D. in entomology at the University of Minnesota, where I studied the molecular interactions of intracellular bacteria and their vectors/hosts. After my Ph.D., I moved to Guadeloupe, France for a post-doctoral position at CIRAD and came back to the U.S. for a second post-doctoral position at the School of Medicine at the University of Maryland. I held an assistant professor position at Texas A&M University from 2019 – 2023 before coming to the University of Wisconsin–Madison. 

How did you get into your field of research?
Coming from the tropics and from a family of farmers, I experienced first-hand the impact that arthropods and vector-borne diseases have on humans and animals. So, I decided that I wanted to work with insects early in life. My passion for molecular interactions started when I was in college and took a biochemistry class that changed my life plans and I decided to become a scientist. A later opportunity – to work as an undergraduate exchange student at Dr. Munderloh’s and Dr. Kurtti’s lab – cemented that decision and since that experience I have been “in love” with obligate intracellular bacteria. 

What are the main goals of your current research and outreach programs?
My research program has three goals 1) to understand the cellular and molecular events that are taking place in the tick and its host during a tick bite and the transmission of tick-borne pathogens, 2) to find mechanisms that we can use to stop or prevent pathogen transmission by ticks, and 3) to define molecular mechanisms that allow ticks to adapt to new environments and affect vector capacity.

What was your first visit to campus like?
My first visit to the University of Wisconsin–Madison was during the Madison Marathon back in 2012 or 2013, and it was great! It was the first marathon ever where a “water-stop” had beer and bacon instead of water, gatorade and bananas. That surely makes an impression. 

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?
Although I am not an economist, one aspect that often is overlooked when teaching medical related topics (in my case medical entomology) is the socioeconomic aspect of disease transmission. I have made it a goal in my courses that students understand the many factors that influence disease transmission (especially when an arthropod is involved). 

Do you share your expertise and experiences with the public through social media? If so, which channels do you use?
Yes, I mostly use Twitter. You can find me at @chaveztick.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.
Sadly, Wisconsin is one of the “hot spots” for tick borne diseases. In the last 20 years, several additional tick-borne pathogens have been found here in Wisconsin. My research is focused on two of these pathogens, Anaplasma phagocytophilum and Ehrlichia muris. By working with clinics around the Wisconsin area and with farmers, I hope to find novel treatment and diagnostic technologies that can help prevent and treat tick-borne diseases in humans and animals around the state. 

The pandemic forced us all to reconsider many things we took for granted. Is there something you’ve learned that has helped you through these challenging times, personally or professionally?
The value of organization. It really is not about having “longer day” but how we organize the little time that we have. 

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?
Well, the first thing that people find astonishing when they hear what I do is that ticks have saliva. Not only do they have saliva, but their salivary glands complete the function of a pharmacy and water gathering device. When ticks bite, they use their saliva to diminish your reaction to them (makes it less itchy), so that they can feed for a long time. And they also spit saliva into their “mouth(parts)” to trap moisture from the environment. Incredible creatures, they are.

What are your hobbies and other interests?
I am a runner and a diver, and I like cats so much that my undergraduate students at Texas A&M got me a lab coat that reads “Dr. Adela Chavez Cat Mom.”