UC Berkeley researcher Cara Brook, a specialist in bat-borne viruses, was awarded a $60,000 L’Oréal For Women in Science fellowship.
The fellowship, which is awarded to five women each year, aims to support early-career female scientists and provides recipients with mentorship, training and career coaching in addition to the cash award, according to the organization’s website. Brook, a postdoctoral fellow, called being selected for the fellowship a “huge honor” and said she was proud to be recognized by an organization that emphasizes female leadership and public outreach as well as scientific merit.
“I’m quite passionate about scientific capacity-building in lower and middle-income countries, most specifically Madagascar,” Brook said. “It’s really exciting to be part of a community that values that aspect of my work in addition to and complementary to the science.”
Brook co-founded the first Women’s March in Madagascar in 2019 and teaches Malagasy students basic programming skills. With the award money, Brook said she plans to start a chapter of the Girls Who Code organization in Madagascar, as well as further her work in collaboration with other campus researchers examining the links between bats’ longevity and their tolerance of viruses.
Bats serve as “reservoirs” for the most fatal diseases that affect human populations, according to Brook, whose fieldwork in Madagascar involves catching wild bats that are consumed as a human food source. These viruses lie dormant in the bats’ systems and are “shed” when they’re stressed, Brook added.
“We think that bats have evolved viral tolerance in that they can host but not experience disease as an adaptation for flight,” Brook said. “They’re the only flying mammals, and flight is very physiologically intensive.”
Scientists hypothesize that this evolution on the cellular level also explains bats’ outsized lifespans, Brook said. Bats live longer than any other similarly sized mammal, with the oldest known bat living for up to 40 years.
The study of bat-borne diseases has become particularly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic because several coronaviruses originate in bats, and Brook said she has been working with the campus Innovative Genomics Institute to build a model of COVID-19 transmission dynamics in a university environment.
Her paper, which is currently under review, shows that high-frequency testing of high-transmission-risk individuals can be used to manage the epidemic among the population at large. The paper also links asymptomatic testing with contact tracing as a way to stay ahead of the spread of the disease.
Brook, who is also a conservation biologist, noted the conflict between her work on diseases spread by bats and her wildlife conservation efforts in light of the increased “anti-bat sentiment” brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.
She added, however, that bats in impacted habitats or in poor nutritional states are more likely to be stressed enough to transmit these types of viruses.
“There’s, I think, an opportunity for a true synergistic benefit for both conservation biology and human public health,” Brook said. “We can actually mitigate our own zoonotic disease risk through wildlife protection as well.”