Editor’s note: This story is part of ‘Meet a UChicagoan,’ a regular series focusing on the people who make UChicago a distinct intellectual community. Read about the others here.
One fateful day last fall, the SARS-CoV-2 virus infected a human for the first time, precipitating an outbreak in central China that would intensify into a global pandemic.
When the news began to make international headlines in January, Holly Lutz, AB’09, was not surprised. The University of Chicago alum was already familiar with the devastating threat posed by zoonoses: diseases—like HIV, Ebola and now COVID-19—that jump from animals to humans.
“Scientists have been raising this kind of red flag for decades,” said Lutz, who is an expert on disease ecology in bats, the suspected original host for the coronavirus.
Now an assistant project scientist at the University of California San Diego, Lutz studies animal pathogens and parasites.
She knows first-hand how debilitating infections associated with animals can be: In 2013, while scouting for bats in a hollowed-out strangler fig tree in Uganda, she became infected with histoplasmosis—a fungal lung disease caused by inhaling spores that live on bat guano.
Her initial symptoms were a fever, headache and dry cough. But within weeks, she became physically weak, losing weight and feeling tired even after her fever had subsided.
“It was pretty debilitating for about six months,” said Lutz, who is also a research associate at the Field Museum of Natural History. “As a fungal infection, it can be hard to treat, because the medications that fight it have the potential to harm your own cells.”