Interviewed by Susan Straight
Dorothy Tovar, a PhD candidate in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Stanford University, studies bat cells to determine how bats can host and spread viral diseases that are deadly to humans without succumbing themselves. She hopes to understand bats’ immune responses and heighten awareness of the evolutionary drivers that lead bat-borne diseases to infect people. She received the University of Massachusetts’s 21st Century Leader Award and academic fellowship awards from the National Science Foundation and the American Society for Microbiology. She is an IF/THEN Ambassador, serving as a role model to encourage girls to pursue science careers.
Dorothy, your research is overlapping a singular moment in global history—the coronavirus pandemic. From a microbiologist’s perspective, can you share your thoughts on COVID-19 and how it relates to your work?
Many virologists and infectious disease epidemiologists before me have predicted the coming of an outbreak like this. When I was a senior in college and applying to grad school, I read this book called Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen, and I was really captivated by the reality of the “next big one”—referring to the next big viral outbreak that would come to people. In this book, Donald Burke, an infectious disease epidemiologist, was quoted saying that some of these viruses should be considered serious threats to human health. I took that really seriously and felt called to start studying this.
When I decided to become a grad student at Stanford, reading this book really influenced both why and how I wanted to study viruses in bats. I decided to work with a virologist and an evolutionary biologist to understand interactions between bats and their viruses.
I think the way this relates to the COVID-19 outbreak is that regardless of whether this virus has a bat reservoir, we do know that it came from some animal host. So in order for us to be able to combat this virus and be prepared for future outbreaks, it’s really important for us to understand the biology of these viruses and the ecology and evolution of their hosts. I’m really humbled to be jumping into this field at a time when there are so many really great strides being made.
What’s something you wish you were seeing or hearing in the media about the epidemic?
I’ve heard a lot about this outbreak being referred to as “the great equalizer,” and I don’t think that it is. While a virus doesn’t discriminate based on socioeconomic status, the outcomes of infection can vary drastically based on these factors.
For some of us, this outbreak has been a quite grueling exercise of working from home, which turns out to be quite difficult. But for a lot of other nameless and invisible communities, this outbreak is really wreaking havoc on health and livelihoods. I’m really privileged to weather this outbreak from my apartment at Stanford, but I also try to work hard to remember that that’s not the case for most other people.
I would love to see more media coverage on ways that privileged people like myself can help. If that’s really just staying at home to limit spread, then I want more media coverage on how the decision to stay at home helps those who are more vulnerable.
My hope is that a positive outcome from outbreaks like this might be more investment in conservation solutions that protect bats and work to decrease the incidents of viral spillover into people.
Many people have a pretty strong aversion to bats—whether it’s from watching too many horror movies, having had a close encounter with one at night or in a cave, or from knowing they can carry deadly diseases. How did you feel about bats before you started studying them and how has your research changed your perception of bats, if at all?
A lot of the aversion I had was due to a lack of knowledge and some inaccurate media portrayals. I didn’t really think about bats very much before starting to study them and I didn’t realize how ubiquitous they were. We had bats in our backyard when we moved to the suburbs, and I used to be worried about them getting into the attic, mostly because of my virus-oriented mind going, “Ok, bats have rabies and that’s all I know about bats.”
But now I’m co-advised in an ecology lab and was trained by a grad student who absolutely loves bats. She taught me about how important bats are to our ecosystem and was even able to convince me that some of them are cute. I’ve definitely drunk the Kool-Aid and think they’re really magnificent animals. As with most things in nature, it’s hard not to have a deep respect for a creature you’ve learned so much about.
What do you wish you’d known before you started researching these immune responses in bats and the viruses they spread?
What I wish I’d known was how big a question this is. When I started, it seemed super-small, and now that I’m nearing the end of my PhD, I’m realizing that I’m definitely not going to answer it over the course of my graduate career. While we’re all driven by our individual curiosity and passion, it’s really the field as a whole that makes important strides. So now I’m really just content if my thesis work is even a small drop in that bucket.
What’s the most hopeful thing you’ve discovered in your research so far? In following the work of amazing disease ecologists like Raina Plowright, we’re learning a lot about the ecological drivers of zoonotic spillover. Some of these drivers might actually be linked to human behavior like deforestation. My hope is that a positive outcome from outbreaks like this might be more investment in conservation solutions that protect bats and work to decrease the incidents of viral spillover into people.
How can science museums promote the work of microbiologists through their online programming right now?
Researchers have been working on stuff like this for decades. Really profound advancements have been made. Highlighting their work and why it’s important to the world we live in really helps. It’s hard with microbes because they’re invisible and the average person doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about things they can’t see. So I think the general public would really benefit from resources that connect the invisible world to tangible things they see and experience every day.
What are some effective techniques you’ve learned to engage the general public in scientific thinking—especially as it relates to viruses?
Always connect back to why this is important to the person you’re talking to, and understanding that the “why should I care” can be different for different people. For viruses it can be easy, because viruses can infect everyone. But I’ve found it to be really important to know who you’re talking to and speak to them where they’re at. I think empathy can be a really effective tool for science communication.
What’s your favorite science center?
Hands down the Museum of Science in Boston. One of my favorite memories as a kid was having an overnight field trip there and getting to sleep in the light exhibit room. My favorite birthday present was a membership so I could go as much as I wanted! The California Academy of Sciences is a very close second.
Listen to the entire interview here.
To learn more about Dorothy Tovar, watch her answer kids’ questions about coronavirus and bats in this YouTube Live session organized by GoldieBlox.
For ASTC’s COVID-19 resources, click here.