Conference to foster a holistic approach to rising risks of infectious diseases

Scientists from around the world will gather at Emory University in June to tackle pressing issues brought to the fore by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases (EEID) workshop and conference, set for June 3-9, will encompass the wide range of expertise needed to better prevent and control infectious disease outbreaks.

The annual event, which began 20 years ago, unites disease ecology — the science of how pathogens are embedded in ecosystems and may jump between species — with biomedical science, social science and public health. After more than two years of COVID-19 sweeping the globe, EEID 2022 will emphasize the critical need for better science communication to the public, the role of climate change in driving infectious diseases, and the importance of racial and other social disparities in causing inequity and preventing effective control of disease.

“Until the current pandemic, many people may not have realized the potential for such huge, global consequences coming from a virus living in bats jumping into humans,” says Jaap de Roode, a professor in Emory’s Department of Biology. 

“Now we hope there is growing societal awareness that the health of the planet and of people are deeply connected,” he adds. “We need to consider infectious diseases across organisms, from the microbiology of immune systems and pathogens to the behaviors of people and animals. And we need to think about how we scale and adapt research and health interventions across ecosystems and geographic areas, from a tiny, remote village to the worldwide population. 

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A range of expertise

EEID 2022 will feature presentations by leading experts from 17 different institutions, including four from Emory, covering the following themes: Pandemic Scenario Modeling, Science Communication, Human and Animal Mobility, Socioeconomics and Land Use, Social Justice and Infectious Disease, and Infectious Disease Across Scales. 

The film “Making Pandemics: Preserving Biodiversity to Protect Our Health” will be screened as part of the conference. The documentary by M2R Films of France features Academy Award-winning actress Juliette Binoche meeting with scientists around the globe who are working to protect the health of people and ecosystems.

It includes scenes filmed on the Emory campus in the lab of Thomas Gillespie, a professor of disease ecology in Emory’s Department of Environmental Sciences and Rollins School of Public Health, as well as scenes of Gillespie’s field work in Madagascar. Philip Wainwright, vice provost for Emory’s Office of Global Strategies and Initiatives, one of the sponsors of the documentary, will introduce the screening of the film.

This year marks the first time that social justice is featured in the EEID program.

“COVID-19 clearly revealed how social and racial disparities play a key role in transmission risk and mortality in a directly transmitted disease pandemic, and yet many infectious disease researchers are not well trained in these areas,” says Micaela Martinez, a disease ecologist and an assistant professor in Emory’s biology department, who was among the many Emory faculty, staff and students involved in organizing the event. Martinez’ own research specialties include the intersection between social justice, the environment and health.

A university-wide effort

Emory University — a research powerhouse in immunology and viral evolution, disease ecology, drug and vaccine development, clinical medicine, public health, global health, environmental health and social justice — is the ideal setting for EEID 2022.

The event was organized and is hosted by the university’s Infectious Disease Across Scales Training Program and its MP3 Initiative: Molecules and Pathogens to Populations and Pandemics. The MP3 Initiative fosters collaboration across disciplines to tackle infectious diseases, uniting expertise across the university, from the Emory School of Medicine, Rollins School of Public Health and Emory College of Arts and Sciences to the adjacent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“We’ve designed the conference to bring everyone from across disciplines together in the same room, at the same time, throughout the formal presentations,” says de Roode, a faculty leader of the MP3 Initiative and an expert in host-parasite interactions. “We’ve also planned hikes and other activities to allow people to chat in smaller groups and informal settings. We want to maximize opportunities to share ideas.”

 More than 400 people will attend the conference in person, in addition to those who will tap in virtually from around the world.

“We’ve set the safety bar extremely high,” says Todd Swink, associate director of the MP3 Initiative, noting that all attendees must be fully vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19 and that masking protocols will also be followed.

Generous funding by the National Science Foundation, Emory, Elsevier and the Royal Society Publishing will make the event accessible to as many attendees as possible, including graduate students and younger scientists, by keeping costs as low as possible. Seven travel awards were made available for early-career scientists seeking to merge infectious disease and social justice in their research.

“Departments across the university, including Campus Life and Campus Services, have gone above and beyond to facilitate our planning, helping us to stay within budget and still be creative,” Swink says. “For many people this will be their first conference since the pandemic began and we hope to make the experience especially fulfilling. 

Registration is required to attend. While the in-person attendance is nearly full, those who wish to attend virtually should email Swink for details: todd.swink@emory.edu.

A synopsis of the schedule

“Pandemic Scenario Modeling and Science Communication Workshop,” set for June 3-6, is geared for students and early-career postdocs who want to develop skills for better responding to the next global pandemic. Participants will learn to work disease forecasting models designed to portray different scenarios for an outbreak of a new pandemic.

The experts leading them will include biologists Karen Lips (University of Maryland), Calistus Ngonghala (University of Florida), Jaap de Roode (Emory) and data scientists Noam Ross (EcoHealth Alliance) and Samuel Scarpino (Rockekfeller Foundation). Concurrently, the participants will also learn skills to best communicate their science with policy makers and the public, facilitated by infectious disease journalist Maryn McKenna, a fellow with Emory’s Center for the Study of Human Health, and Sam Whitehead, a correspondent for Kaiser Health News.

The conference, set for June 6-9 in the Emory Student Center, includes the following talks.

  • “Pandemic Scenario Modeling: Risks Assessment and End Game with Respect to Epidemics and Pandemics,” by Rebecca Kahn (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health) 
  • “Socioeconomics and Land Use: Social, Cultural and Economic Characteristics of Agricultural and/or Land Wse Systems,” by Benjamin Roche (University of Montpellier) 
  • “Human and Animal Mobility: Effects of Host Behavior and Mobility on Disease Transmission,” by disease ecologist Gonzalo Vazquez-Prokopec (Emory) and epidemiologist Amira Roess (George Mason University)
  • “Social Justice and Infectious Disease: Historical and Humanities Analysis of Racial Disparities and Infectious Disease; Climate Change and Infectious Disease,” by Rueben Warren (director of the National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care, Tuskegee University); Terry McGovern (chair of the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health, Columbia University Medical Center); and Cinthia Carvajal (program officer for sexual and reproductive justice and crisis response, for the Global Fund for Women)
  • “Science Communication: Communicating about Infectious Disease and Vaccination with the Public,” by journalist Sam Whitehead (Kaiser Health News) and biostatistician Natalie Dean (Rollins School of Public Health)
  • “Infectious Diseases Across Scales: From Immune Molecules and Pathogens to Populations, Ecological Communities and Pandemics,” by microbiologist Anice Lowen (Emory School of Medicine) and disease ecologist Katie Hampson (University of Glasgow)