Nicole Rockey: Engineering Roadblocks Across Pathogens’ Paths to Infection

8/9 Pratt School of Engineering

New faculty member Nicole Rockey mixes expertise in civil engineering and virology to make our indoor environments less hospitable to disease-spreading microbes

Nicole Rockey smiling in front of a striped green background
Nicole Rockey: Engineering Roadblocks Across Pathogens’ Paths to Infection

Nicole Rockey will join the faculty of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, beginning August 1. With a background in civil engineering combined with doctoral and postdoctoral work in virology and infectious diseases, Rockey explores the biological and environmental factors that allow viruses to spread and thrive.

After earning her undergraduate degree in civil engineering from the University of Texas at Austin, Rockey spent two years as a transportation roadway engineer. After deciding that the career wasn’t for her, she pursued a PhD in environmental engineering from the University of Michigan, where she studied methods for removing pathogens through water treatment processes in water reuse settings.

The research gave her a bug for learning more about viruses, so she joined a virology lab at the University of Pittsburgh as a postdoctoral associate to dive deep into studying viral life cycles and features that affect transmission and infection. A year into the pandemic at the time, it was—and continues to be—a hot topic in the research community.

“Viruses are incredibly diverse in their structure and how they infect hosts and cause disease. There’s still so much we don’t know,” Rockey said. “Besides being fascinating to me, better understanding these viruses and what we can do to the environments around us to help stop their spread has huge potential for impact.”

“Besides being fascinating to me, better understanding these viruses and what we can do to the environments around us to help stop their spread has huge potential for impact.”

nicole rockey

For example, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common, typically mild respiratory virus that can cause serious illness, especially in the very young and very old. Each year in the United States alone, an estimated 58,000-80,000 children under five are hospitalized due to the disease. Besides increasing the reach of vaccinations, structural changes to ventilation, the use of air purifiers or masks, and perhaps even controlling humidity levels could impact the spread of this and other airborne pathogens.

As a postdoc, Rockey studied influenza virus spread in ferrets, which get sick and shed the virus like humans do. They also play together similarly to human children, making them ideal candidates for research on the transmission of respiratory viruses. In close contact scenarios that mimicked childcare settings, she actually found that increasing ventilation did not impact the spread of the flu.

“This means that something like masking would probably be more beneficial in these settings, but unfortunately we couldn’t really put masks on the ferrets,” Rockey said. “As the past few years have shown us, however, there’s a lot more that we could be doing to prevent the spread of disease in our classrooms. My research moving forward will work to understand more of the built, indoor environmental aspects of human health.”

Rockey said she decided to join Duke because it’s a great fit for her research interests. For starters, Duke is home to the new $26 million Engineering Research Center for Precision Microbiome Engineering (PreMiEr), which aims to develop diagnostic tools and engineering approaches that promote building designs for preventing the colonization of harmful bacteria, fungi or viruses while encouraging beneficial microorganisms. The opportunity for Rockey’s research to make immediate contributions to these goals is clear.

“As the past few years have shown us, however, there’s a lot more that we could be doing to prevent the spread of disease in our classrooms. My research moving forward will work to understand more of the built, indoor environmental aspects of human health.”

nicole rockey

Duke is also home to many potential collaborators in the Duke University Medical Center as well as centers like the Center for Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Infectious Disease (WaSH-AID), which takes academic, non-profit and private industry ideas from around the world and translates them to deployable, technology-based solutions for health and environmental challenges.

But beyond being a great fit, Rockey said she also felt right at home during her visits to Durham. Having taken up wine tasting during the pandemic, she’s interested in exploring the growing culinary scene in the region, and she is also looking forward to exploring the city and surrounding trails with her husband and dog. And, she said, the department has been extremely welcoming, as any self-respecting Southern community should be.

“Everyone I met and talked with was excited and energized by their research, and the department is incredibly transparent with the strategic vision they are pursuing and the path they’re taking to get there,” Rockey said. “I’m also really excited about the students, who all seem amazing to work with. I’m looking forward to getting to mentor and teach and learn from them.”