Undergraduate student gains hands-on experience in disease ecology

They’re called cowboys, but you won’t find them astride a horse rounding up stray cattle. They are scientists—dubbed disease cowboys—who search for the cause when unknown diseases break out in remote locales.

Ian Buller, a CU-Boulder senior majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology, has his sights set on being one of these daring “disease cowboys” and to specialize in disease ecology, specifically identifying and studying disease emergence and designing control programs.

Buller, who is pursuing concurrent bachelor’s/master’s degrees, works in Professor Pieter Johnson’s CU-Boulder lab on the amphibian necropsy task force. He is studying a type of parasite common in the United States to determine if there’s an environmental factor that correlates with its presence in particular areas across the country.

“My research entails cutting open frogs and counting their parasites,” he said. “Diseases are biological creatures. We’re trying to understand how the environment affects them and how they affect the environment.”

The research has potential significance for entire ecological communities and ecosystem processes. Invasions and diseases can have costly economic and health repercussions for human society.

“I get to work with a professor who’s studying a unique approach to this field,” said Buller. “It’s infectious to work in his lab.”

A 2011 Goldwater Scholarship winner, Buller is an active participant in CU-Boulder's Presidents Leadership Class and the campus chapter of GlobeMed. Once he completes his dual degrees, he plans to pursue a PhD program. His goal is to work for the Centers for Disease Control or the World Health Organization, or possibly in academia as faculty.

“There are some scary diseases out there,” said Buller, “but that’s part of the excitement.”