Investigating Outbreaks: Beyond the Laboratory
Well-timed Infectious Disease Science Initiative strives to make UCI a global leader in an urgent and ever-evolving field
When Sanghyuk Shin launched UCI’s Infectious Disease Science Initiative in July 2019, the assistant professor of nursing had no idea that a devastating pandemic would erupt a mere eight months later. He simply recognized an opportunity to bring together under one umbrella the experts across numerous schools and centers on campus whose research touches on the dynamics of infectious diseases and drug resistance.
“I was excited because there were so many faculty working on infectious disease dynamics,” Shin says about his arrival at UCI in 2017. “But there was no system or structure for how these faculty members could work together to generate new ideas, develop collaborations, and share their research with each other and the public.”
In establishing IDSI, he looked forward to teaming with its members to fuel new insights into such scourges as tuberculosis (his own specialty), pathogenic E. coli, malaria and HIV. But then the novel coronavirus entered the scene, and the fledgling initiative found itself in the right place at the right time to rally its resources in support of not only UCI colleagues but the Orange County community in the fight against COVID-19.
A Broader Perspective
It’s no surprise that the health sciences are amply represented in IDSI’s leadership and faculty advisory board: Researchers in medicine, nursing, public health, epidemiology and – of course – infectious diseases have all signed on. But what’s unique about the initiative is its broader perspective on the subject. Experts in law, sociology, anthropology, ecology, engineering, statistics and information science have joined IDSI as well.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has made all too clear that the drivers of infectious diseases include things like housing, social inequities and anti-science social media,” says Shin, who serves as IDSI director. “Traditional laboratory research is highly important, but there’s a need to bring in other disciplines to really understand infectious diseases.”
In addition, the vast amounts of data now available from electronic medical records and new technologies such as genomics can be mined to provide insights about what factors lead and sustain outbreaks and what can be done to predict and prevent the emergence, or reemergence, of infectious diseases. Fortunately, UCI just happens to be a powerhouse in the fields of information science, math and statistics. “We want to leverage and synergize all of these disciplines to advance our knowledge of infectious diseases,” Shin says.
UCI is fertile ground for such an initiative; the university has a long history of fostering cross-disciplinary collaboration. “At UCI, there has been a real prioritization of making sure that we don’t have silos. That makes a tremendous difference,” says Michele Goodwin, Chancellor’s Professor of law and director of the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy. She’s examining such issues as how to balance public health concerns and constitutional law concerns with quarantine and shelter-in-place orders. That research informs her role on IDSI’s faculty advisory board. “How we’ve been able to get together on this initiative has been enriching,” Goodwin says. “Would I have been doing some of my work independently? Yes. But are there ways in which we’re engaging now because of this initiative and the pandemic? Absolutely.”
From the beginning, IDSI has positioned itself as a go-to resource for information and advice on emerging infectious diseases. The fortuitous timing of its launch enabled it to quickly mobilize faculty and community health experts for one of the first public seminars on COVID-19 in Orange County, in February. Since then, IDSI’s website and Twitter account have been invaluable portals where the public and health officials can find the latest coronavirus research and statistics. “We try to translate the information to make it easier to understand for people who don’t have a scientific background,” says Jackie Valera, a master’s student in nursing who helps update IDSI’s internet feeds.
The initiative’s Twitter account shares pandemic stories hot off the presses from not only mainstream news outlets but academic journals. The website has assembled links to county, state, national and international COVID-19 efforts. And both forums prominently showcase studies by IDSI members that highlight the diversity of their approaches to the disease.
For example, Carter Butts, professor of sociology, drew on his expertise in the flow of information and diseases through social networks to evaluate how uneven population distribution can significantly impact the severity and timing of coronavirus infections within a city or county. “The differences among communities within a large urban area can be quite profound,” he says.
Those differences are starkly depicted in the OC COVID-19 Situation Report and COVID-19 Trends by UC Irvine websites, two vital tools developed by a multidisciplinary team of UCI researchers and Orange County health officials led by Vladimir Minin, professor of statistics and associate director of IDSI. The first predicts possible coronavirus epidemic trajectories, including positive tests and deaths for Orange County. The second chronicles COVID-19 trends since the spring in California counties and individual Orange County cities, depicting in easy-to-read graphs how the various municipalities differ in their experiences. The National Institutes of Health has since joined in the modeling effort. The graphs are offered free of charge, and the source code is available at a click so that other institutions and communities can replicate them for their own use. “These tools are Exhibit A and Exhibit B for collaborative efforts,” Minin says.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made all too clear that the drivers of infectious diseases include things like housing, social inequities and anti-science social media. Traditional laboratory research is highly important, but there’s a need to bring in other disciplines to really understand infectious diseases.”
Forging New Partnerships
Another of IDSI’s top priorities is forming new interdisciplinary collaborations. In fall 2019, it hosted a “speed dating” event at which nearly 50 UCI researchers chatted each other up in search of mutual areas of interest. As word of the initiative has spread on campus, its directors have served as middlemen, fielding requests for referrals and making key introductions.
Distinguished Professor Adey Nyamathi, founding dean of the Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing, has been working with the homeless population on L.A.’s Skid Row for 35 years. When the pandemic hit, she wondered how many homeless individuals had contracted the virus and how it was affecting their substance use. She had the resources to investigate the latter but not the former. Shin referred her to Ilhem Messaoudi Powers, professor of molecular biology & biochemistry, who agreed to conduct COVID-19 antibody testing for Nyamathi. “She is quite impressive in the work she does,” Nyamathi says of Messaoudi. “It will be exciting to forge ahead with her in this study of a population that we don’t have any information on and who are at the highest risk.”
The excitement is mutual, because Nyamathi’s research dovetails with other IDSI-connected COVID-19 studies of UCI students and UCI Health providers that Messaoudi is involved in. Nyamathi’s “results will be integrated with these other projects and provide us a rich body of data that will allow us to compare the prevalence of antibodies in groups with different risk and exposure rates,” Messaoudi says. “It will give us a bigger picture.”
IDSI also jump-starts new interdisciplinary studies by awarding seed grants to young researchers. Its first round of them, in April, serves as a reminder that while COVID-19 is currently taking center stage, other infectious diseases still require attention and ingenuity.
Solomon Kibret Birhanie, a visiting professor in UCI’s Program in Public Health, received a seed grant for his work on how dams and reservoir water management in Africa impact mosquito ecology and malaria transmission. He sought assistance from Kuo-lin Hsu, a UCI professor of civil & environmental engineering and an expert on hydrology and remote sensing. Birhanie was astonished by the depth of environmental data that could be obtained from Landsat databases. “We know that almost every public health issue is influenced by environmental factors,” he says. “Who better understands environmental factors than hydrologists or civil engineers?”
“The more we understand about the occurrence of disease transmission and what affects it, the more we will be able to develop innovative tools to stop it,” he adds.
Birhanie’s work in Africa is emblematic of IDSI’s overarching goal: to position UCI as not just a valuable local resource but a worldwide leader in research and education in infectious disease dynamics. “All of humanity is tied together in one big network,” Butts says. “We need to be prepared and think globally about health problems we might face and the solutions for them – because helping cure infectious diseases elsewhere is also a way to protect ourselves here. That connected view is organic to IDSI and important for our society. I’m glad that UCI is supporting it and that we have people in this initiative who are leading that charge.”