April 2020 Newsletter

Letter from the Director

Hello friends,

To say it has been an interesting couple of months would be an understatement. Indeed, we all find ourselves in a truly unprecedented time of uncertainty and adjusting to a new normal for the foreseeable future. I’ll be honest: it has not been easy. But nevertheless, we continue to push forward. I commend the resiliency of all MAISRC researchers who have been managing project teams from home and developing creative socially distant research plans. It will not be the field season we hoped for, but I’m optimistic that we are well-positioned to continue making progress.

As part of our competitive RFP, we recently reviewed more than 20 submitted pre-proposals requesting nearly $4M in funding. Unfortunately, the number of compelling proposals far outweighed our available funding and tough choices had to be made. Selected pre-proposals are now being developed into full proposals and will then be reviewed by experts from around the world. We plan to make final decisions and announce our next group of projects in late summer – stay tuned!

I would be remised if I did not acknowledge the incredible response and capacity the University of Minnesota has provided to addressing COVID-19 issues at home and around the world. It has been an inspiration to see what can be accomplished at this world-class institution when we are committed to solving a problem. To our colleagues across campus… thank you! #UMNProud

Time for another Zoom meeting. Or a kindergarten lesson. Or being interrupted during a Zoom meeting about a kindergarten lesson.

Stay healthy,


Q&A with Dr. Amy Kinsley: exploring parallels between COVID-19 and AIS

Q: Can you tell us a little about yourself?

My name is Amy Kinsley. I am an aquatic epidemiologist in the Department of Veterinary Population Medicine in the College of Veterinary Medicine. My work focuses on protecting aquaculture, fisheries, and natural aquatic resources from emerging threats such as pathogens, invasive species, and pollutants. Typically, my projects include a modeling component that guides stakeholders through different scenarios to gain an understanding of the potential consequences, intended or unintended, that may arise as a result of different mitigation strategies.

Currently, I am leading a project with MAISRC in which we are working to design an effective statewide surveillance and early detection system for Minnesota and address the funding and regulatory, policy, and statutory changes needed to support the proposed system. In addition, we are generating recommendations on the use of various AIS models to guide surveillance activities.

Q: What first interested you in epidemiology?

My path towards epidemiology began when I was designing and managing land development projects as a civil engineer on the coast of Florida. Through this work, I became interested in understanding the impacts of land disturbance on native wildlife in coastal ecosystems, such as habitat fragmentation, introduced non-native species, and reduced biodiversity through pollution and disease. This led me towards veterinary medicine and ecosystem health which ultimately pointed me in the direction of epidemiology.

Q: The current situation with COVID-19 must be of special interest to you. Any initial thoughts you'd like to share?

Yes, the current COVID-19 situation is of particular interest to me. To back up a bit and provide some more context on my background, my foundational scientific work focused on modeling the spread of foot and mouth disease virus. The pathogen is considered by many to be the most contagious disease affecting animals. We do not have the disease here in the US, so this work was done to support planning and preparedness activities. I used a variety of computational methods, including mechanistic disease models that describe the dynamics of infection, and network models that explicitly represent contact between entities to identify the most effective and efficient control strategies. With that in mind, I have been intrigued by the way different leaders have used science to establish and communicate mitigation recommendations to the broader public and the way the public has responded, especially when they have used some form of modeling.

Q: What is your reaction to the UMN stepping up to assist in COVID-19 research and have you been tapped to help in any way?

I think UMN’s response to assist COVID-19 research has been remarkable. In the early stages of the epidemic, they launched into action to provide rapid response funds to get small-scale projects off the ground. The funds have resulted in some really innovative and impressive projects ranging from the development of novel therapeutics and diagnostic tests to the design of low-cost ventilators. I’m proud to be part of the faculty here; we have some exceptionally talented and passionate researchers. On that note, I felt compelled to contribute my skills towards the efforts to control COVID-19 and I knew that my expertise could be repurposed. Currently, my team and I are working on developing parameter values, or epidemiological values that inform COVID-19 models, to quantify the stages of disease and transmission rate for states in the US. The ultimate goal of this work is to support public health by developing models that accurately represent transmission by state, where we see differences playing out in terms of mitigation strategies and outcomes. We also are working to assess changes in transmission rates over time to assess the impacts of mitigation strategies and their ultimate relaxation when that occurs.

Q: Can you draw any similarities on a surface level between COVID-19 and AIS—whether that be in their detection, spread, or mitigation?

Oh, yes. I think there are many similarities between COVID-19 and AIS. The pandemic has shown us how important it is to base response strategies on science-driven approaches and the need for transparency in that process. Also, I think this pandemic has underscored the importance of collaboration between and across governmental organizations. Here in Minnesota, we have seen collaborative efforts between the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Department of Health develop transmission models to response efforts which have been used to support mitigation strategies, such as social distancing.

Another point of similarity between the two is the need to successfully identify which people or waterbodies are infected/infested and capable of infecting others in order to stop the spread. Achieving this can be difficult because it requires having a sensitive diagnostic test, or appropriate detection methods, coupled with a sampling strategy that aims to catch infections or infestations early by testing often enough to prevent spread that can occur in the early stages of infection/infestation. This approach often means actively targeting asymptomatic people and waterbodies that are not listed as infested, which can feel like an uncertain use of resources since there is no guarantee that those entities would become infected of infested. In addition, it is difficult to measure the impact of prevention efforts. When we compare allocating resources towards management instead of prevention, or something where we can measure the impact of the efforts, it can feel like the safer, more defensible route. However, focusing solely on management may not provide a better outcome and can end up requiring quite a bit more time and resources. Unfortunately, we were not able to do this in the early stages of COVID-19 here in the US.

Another important point is that since we don’t have an endless supply of resources to do repeat testing on all waterbodies or people after every risky contact, it’s imperative to have a testing strategy that considers risk over time. Ideally, the strategy would be one based on the biology of the pathogen in the host, or the biology of the AIS in the region of interest, and knowledge of the system we are working with and the risk of infection or infestation.

Q: What is a common misunderstanding, or simply something you would like people to know about the spread of disease, as pertaining to COVID-19 or AIS?

This is a tough one because the COVID-19 situation is rapidly progressing. To date, I would say that most misconceptions are based on mismanaged expectations. With both AIS and COVD-19, there are people holding out for a silver bullet, simple solution, or are losing hope in the fight. But in general, there are no simple solutions to these types of complex problems. In both cases, the battle against invasions and infestations will require a thoughtful, systematic approach developed by science-supported policy and supported by the public. It won’t be easy, but itis undoubtedly a fight worth fighting.

Q: Is there anything you would like to add?

I’d like to end the interview with a note of positivity and kindness. I hope everyone is finding ways to stay safe and healthy and are able to find trust in their ability to be resilient.

Exciting findings in recent zebra mussel research

In previous management studies, copper sulfate has been used for controlling zebra mussels. In 2019, the Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center and United States Geologic Survey partnered to study the effectiveness of low-dose copper application to control zebra mussel populations in lake ecosystems. The concentration used in the study was substantially lower than previously used in Minnesota lakes—60 parts per billion (ppb) vs. one part per million (ppm) of free copper.

The objectives of the study were to determine the effectiveness of low-dose copper treatments for reducing zebra mussel populations and to monitor the response of native species. Researchers selected two similar bays in Lake Minnetonka to conduct the study—St. Alban’s Bay was treated while Robinson Bay was used as a control.

In early July 2019, the research team conducted pre-treatment assessments of zebra mussel density, native zooplankton and benthic invertebrate communities in both bays. They then began treating St. Alban’s bay to a targeted concentration of 60 ppb of free copper. The team maintained the concentration for 10 days

Data is currently under review, and results are still preliminary; however, the study suggests that the treatment effectively reduced zebra mussel veliger density, juvenile zebra mussel recruitment, and live zebra mussel density. Potential treatment-related impacts to native species varied. Zooplankton mean density declined after exposure in the treated bay compared to an increase in the control bay. Similar trends were observed in abundance and family richness of benthic invertebrates that were collected. No treatment-related adverse impacts were observed to the native mussels 24 hours after exposure.

Post-treatment monitoring is planned for 2020 and 2021 in order to determine the long-term effectiveness of the treatment. Follow-ups will inform the need for retreatment and will help determine the recovery response of the native community.

These findings are exciting for a number of reasons. By identifying the lowest quantity of free copper needed to effectively treat zebra mussel infestations, researchers hope to reduce the cost of future treatments and limit impacts to native species. Looking forward, our researchers hope to replicate the results observed in St. Alban’s Bay in additional lakes before providing final recommendations.

Visit the project website or view a project summary PDF to learn more.


Dr. Nick Phelps awarded the 2020 Richard C. Newman Community Impact Award

Join us in congratulating MAISRC Director, Dr. Nick Phelps, who has been selected to receive the 2020 Richard C. Newman Community Impact Award. This annual award recognizes a faculty member who exemplifies the best of the University of Minnesota’s land grant tradition as a “people’s university” by demonstrating powerful community impact. It acknowledges faculty members who are innovative in building partnerships within and outside the University and creating effective connections between the discovery and application of knowledge in the natural resource sciences.

AIS Detectors workshops cancelled

Due to safety considerations associated with COVID-19 and its spread, the University of Minnesota Extension has canceled all in-person events through May 31—this includes AIS Detectors Core Courses and workshops. Our program team will be redirecting our efforts and elevating the priority of making online-only programs available to our audience. We will let you know as soon as possible whether the workshops will be rescheduled for later this year.

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In these challenging times, your contributions mean more now than ever. While our immediate day-to-day has changed due to COVID-19, we are still dedicated to advancing high-quality research and finding solutions for the AIS problems facing Minnesota.

Help us continue our critical work by making a gift today — private contributions to MAISRC make a real difference and provide us with the flexibility to meet critical needs as they arise.

Thank you!