Kelly Speer. Image: Cami Walker

"My current research is a lot different than where I thought I would be when I started college,” said Kelly Speer, the new director of the Michigan Pathogen Biorepository (MPABI). Originally thinking she might pursue English as an undergraduate that changed when Speer started working in the Museum of Southwestern Biology. “The first day on the job, I assisted in preparing a Mexican gray wolf so that it could be added to the collection as a research skeleton and skin. The amazing hands-on biology experience completely changed my career trajectory."

After earning her bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and biology, Speer received a master’s degree in zoology studying the population genetics of Caribbean bats and their ectoparasites. She went on to complete her doctorate at the American Museum of Natural History’s Richard Gilder Graduate School and is currently working on her postdoctoral research with Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute molecular pathogen scientist Dr. Carly Muletz-Wolz, and a National Museum of Natural History’s curator, Dr. Anna Phillips.

Accompanying her to Ann Arbor are her husband, Dr. Richie Hodel, who begins a research scientist position at U-M in 2024, and their cantankerous cats, Linus and Mojave. In addition to the draw of the Ann Arbor campus, Speer is excited about the opportunities offered by the position. “As director of the Michigan Pathogen Biorepository, I will work with the Michigan Center for Infectious Disease Threats (MCIDT) and others at the University of Michigan to build interdisciplinary, effective tools for preventing pathogen spillover from wildlife to humans.”

Because wildlife are a significant source of emerging pathogens in humans, the ability to prevent and prepare for the next pandemic is dependent on foundational knowledge of pathogen transmission in wildlife prior to spillover. “My research program contributes to this foundational knowledge by examining how evolution and ecology shape associations between mammals, ectoparasites, and pathogenic or beneficial microbes,” said Speer. Ectoparasites are vectors of viral, bacterial and apicomplexan pathogens in mammals. The competence of these ectoparasite vectors and their ability to associate with a host is mediated by bacteria. “I leverage this assemblage of species to test hypotheses about how communities respond to disease emergence, environmental change, and biodiversity loss, informing our understanding of pathogen dynamics in complex natural ecosystems.” 

Using a combination of samples collected on international field expeditions and specimens from natural history collections, Speer applies genomic techniques to estimate population dynamics, phylogenetic relationships, and community interactions of the mammal-ectoparasite-microbe assemblage. “I use ecological interaction networks and machine learning algorithms to examine this complex system within the context of habitat fragmentation and loss occurring in North and Central America.”

More specifically, Speer works with bats, bat flies (obligate blood-feeding ectoparasites of bats), and the microorganisms associated with both. “I used bat flies to track fine-scale population differentiation in their host bats between islands of The Bahamas. I was interested in the ways that bacteria might be influencing the interaction between bats and bat flies, which led me to my current research trajectory.”

Looking ahead, Speer is eager to teach a field course for EEB and Public Health students that focuses on disease ecology and mammalogy. “I hope students gain an appreciation of how different research fields tackle questions so that they can start thinking integratively about ways to combine their expertise and interests with other fields.” Additionally, Speer will mentor graduate and undergraduate students in the lab, and in the M-PABI and U-M Museum of Zoology. “I want to train next-generation thinkers and U-M seems like an amazing place to do that.”