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Disease Ecology

Headshot of Dr. Holly ErnestDr. Holly Ernest, Professor, Wyoming Excellence Chair in Disease Ecology, Department of Veterinary Sciences, faculty member in the Program in Ecology, and Affiliate faculty member in the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources (B.S., Biology, Cornell University; M.S. Veterinary Physiology and Pharmacology, Ohio State University; Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, Ohio State University; Ph.D. Ecology with focus in wildlife genetics, University of California, Davis). Professor Ernest joined the UW faculty in August of 2014, after serving as a faculty member at the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.  Her research, teaching, and service program involves the intersection of two exciting and emerging disciplines; Wildlife Genomics and Disease Ecology.  Dr. Ernest is a wildlife biologist, population geneticist, and wildlife veterinarian who leads a team of students and researcher-trainees to answer questions vital to conservation and management of wildlife populations in Wyoming and the North American West.  Wildlife include wild ungulates (bighorn sheep, mule deer and Chronic Wasting Disease, and pronghorn), carnivores (mountain lions, black bears, and otters), and birds (raptors and hummingbirds).  Dr. Ernest’s team studies in population genomics apply state-of-art whole genome DNA technology to examine factors that are vital for population health, genetic diversity, and adaptations to changing environments.  Dr. Ernest and her students have provided over 60 outreach and public service activities in 2017 and 2018 including (just a few examples) participating in K12 Science Olympiad in Casper, UW Saturday-University talks in Jackson and Rock Springs; Women in STEM Science; advising biologists from US Fish and Wildlife Service, WY Game and Fish Dept, and other state and federal agencies; presentations for the Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation and the National Bighorn Sheep Museum in Dubois; developing an educational video game for K12 educators to illustrate spread of disease in wildlife; and providing a senior center with an educational talk and materials about hummingbird ecology. Working with the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish, Dr. Ernest’s team are determining the genetic health and population structure of bighorn sheep, mule deer – including genetic susceptibility to Chronic Wasting Disease, and pronghorn populations state-wide; Ecology and genomic diversity of Great Gray Owls in Northwest Wyoming; and employing a combination of field ecology, bird banding, and genomic methods to evaluate population ecology of hummingbirds who live in “sky-island” habitats in the Rocky Mountains.  Dr. Ernest’s NSF-funded collaboration with Colorado State University, University of Minnesota, and University of Tasmania involves testing models of landscape-level viral disease transmission as informed by host and viral genomic data in wild felids (mountain lions and bobcats).  Ernest Lab members conduct statistical analysis and modeling with the Teton computing core resources to interpretation of large (terabyte) genomic data sets.  Dr. Ernest teaches her undergraduate course Disease Ecology: which covers real world applications and the underlying principles that influence the spatial and temporal patterns of diseases.  Dr. Ernest also leads a graduate seminar series in Conservation Genomics, a discipline that is growing rapidly in importance for conserving and managing natural wildlife and plant resources.  Dr. Ernest served as Program in Ecology Curriculum Committee chair, provided service as the Graduate Program Coordinator for the Department of Veterinary Sciences, was elected to serve on the UW Graduate Council, serves on the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources Tenure and Promotion Committee, and has provided several external tenure and promotion evaluations for other universities. Extramural funding for research projects over the past 3 years totaled over $1,000,000, with new grant funding coming in since spring 2018 totaling over $150,000.  Funding and exciting projects have allowed recruitment to Wyoming of the best and brightest students and trainees.  Multi-institution collaborations include Montana State University, Colorado State University, University of California Davis, Wyoming Department of Game and Fish (WGFD), National Park Service, US Geological Survey, Smithsonian Institution, UC Santa Cruz, US Department of Agriculture, and others.  Dr. Ernest serves on the federal Wildlife Forensic Science NIST panel of experts to develop and distribute DNA methods and protocols for crime labs. Nine scientific papers have been accepted, in-press or published during the past year include journals of Wildlife Diseases, Evolutionary Applications, Wildlife Management, Diversity and Distributions, and Conservation Genetics. Dr. Ernest serves as Associate Editor for the journal, Conservation Genetics.  She expanded the Wildlife Genomics and Disease Ecology Lab’s online presence to educate the public about wildlife health issues and research: a website with over 30 informational pages,, and regular twitter and Facebook postings.

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