Paige Miller, a doctoral student in the IDEAS (Interdisciplinary Disease Ecology Across Scales) Program within the Odum School of Ecology, uses statistical and mathematical models to explore the ecological, evolutionary, and epidemiological processes driving infectious disease dynamics.
Advised by Odum School of Ecology professor Dr. John Drake and College of Public Health professor Dr. Chris Whalen, Miller studies how the social contact network of a population ffects the transmission of tuberculosis (Mycobacterium tuberculosis).
Also known as TB, the Tuberculosis disease is caused by a bacterium that lies dormant in approximately one quarter of the human population.
10.4 million people contracted TB in 2016, with 1.7 million people dying from the disease.
Transmission of the bacterium is fairly common in developing or low-income countries and occurs as aerosol droplets are exhaled by an infected person and breathed in by a susceptible person.
These droplets can remain suspended in the air for up to 30 minutes before sinking to the ground.
“Because of the ability of tuberculosis to remain in the air for a substantial amount of time,” Miller explains, “transmission might not require such close contact as previously suspected.”
“In fact, it might actually only require an infected person and a susceptible person to share the same space at roughly the same time,” she says.
Miller’s research, sponsored by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, is primarily focused on understanding the context of TB transmission in order to develop new ways to prevent it.
She has been working toward understanding and preventing TB transmission since participating in a summer research program at UGA while still an undergraduate student at Gustavus Adolphus College in Southern Minnesota.
“I chose to attend UGA because of the incredible variety and depth of infectious disease researchers here and because I would be close enough to potentially develop connections and collaborations with the CDC during graduate school,” she explains.
Miller was able to intern with the Division of Global Migration and Quarantine at the CDC in 2017, where she helped develop a monitoring system for detecting changes in travel flow to the United States from areas of high TB incidence.
“Since political climate is constantly changing, the patterns of migration to the US are also constantly changing,” she says. “It’s important for the CDC to be aware of those changes so that they can optimally distribute resources to different parts of the country.”
At UGA, Miller is researching whether close relationships (like family and friends) or certain geographical hot spots (like bars or schools) lead to transmission in populations that have high prevalence of tuberculosis.
Her research has led her to collaborate with researchers in the College of Public health to study genetic differences among tuberculosis strains across social contact networks.
“For instance, if two people who have close relationships have similar types of tuberculosis, then close contact probably caused transmission,” she explains.
“But if their types of tuberculosis are every different, then they were probably infected by strangers.”
Miller is exploring this by using data collected through collaborators at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.
“The hope is if we understand how tuberculosis is transmitted among social networks, we will be able to create better TB prevention strategies.”
After graduation, Miller plans to work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“My dream job is to work as an epidemiologist, public health analyst, or data scientist for the CDC.”
“I’m hoping to get my foot in the door as a government research scientist- whether its studying TB, STDs, influenza, or other infectious diseases.”
“I’m excited to use what I’ve learned at UGA as a Ph.D. student in infectious disease ecology and in college as a mathematics major, to help solve real public health issues.”