Gatorbytes Behind-the-Story: The Disease Detectives

Gatorbytes_SPRING2015_DiseaseDetectivesIn April, the University of Florida and the University Press of Florida launched Gatorbytes, a digital book series following the innovative research taking place at UF. Intended to pique the interests of the intellectually curious and to share the stories behind the discoveries being made at UF, the books are written by professional journalists. 

“They know how to take complex material, break it down into manageable chunks and tell a story,” says Meredith Babb, director of the University Press of Florida.

We’re taking a closer look at each of the works in the Gatorbytes series to spotlight the journalists working to share these amazing projects and to offer even more behind-the-scenes information about the groundbreaking research.

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Kris Hundley’s The Disease Detectives: Unraveling How Viruses Go Viral offers an inside look at UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute (EPI), where researchers make it their mission to answer baffling questions such as how a pig-borne disease is transmitted in a Muslim country, what kinds of parasites Florida ticks carry, and how a cholera strain from Nepal evolved in Haiti. The video below from the Gainesville Sun offers a tour of EPI.

Hundleya former reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and the Times’s investigative team, has written on a variety of aspects of health care for over a decade. We recently asked her about her experiences writing this digital book.

UPF: Before writing this story, how much did you know about the science of epidemics?

Hundley: Very little. I had heard of “disease detectives,” but had little if any understanding of how they worked. I wasn’t even sure what a “pathogen” was.

UPF: What were you most surprised to discover about the research on disease taking place at UF?

Hundley: The curiosity and passion driving these researchers was infectious—though perhaps that’s not the best word to use. These scientists are having the time of their lives chasing disease-causing pathogens that are continually evolving, adapting, jumping borders. Despite the frustrations and inevitable setbacks, the researchers I interviewed seemed incredibly enthusiastic about their work.

UPF: What did you find unique about the work at EPI?

Hundley: EPI’s constant encouragement of collaboration among unlikely disciplines: geologists with agricultural engineers, for example. It’s not an easy concept to foster, but they seem to do it well.

UPF: What was it like interviewing all the scientists involved?

Hundley: I thought my head was going to explode after the in-person interviews because these are pretty complex research projects. After interviewing the researchers about their work, I followed up with phone calls and emails to clarify and confirm the information. The scientists were all eager to make their work understandable to a lay person and were patient with idiotic questions.

UPF: Instead of focusing on just one or two individuals, your Gatorbyte includes stories from a great number of scientists working at UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute. Why did you end up featuring so many of the researchers?

Hundley: I wanted to show the tremendous breadth of work going on at EPI. It’s an amazing amount of brainpower that’s being devoted to understanding and stopping deadly diseases worldwide.  And I thought every single researcher had a fascinating story.

UPF: In addition to exotic diseases, you write about research progress on the seasonal flu. Why was this important to the story?

Hundley: I think it was crucial to show that EPI’s research can and does have real-world impact in its local community. The people of Alachua County are healthier as a result of its efforts.

UPF: What do you hope readers will take away from the digital book?

Hundley: I hope they gain an understanding that distance doesn’t matter when it comes to pathogens, as well as an appreciation of the highly technical but critically important work being done at EPI.  It deserves the public’s support.

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Scientists at the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute are always anticipating the next possible epidemic,” Hundley reveals in the digital book. The group of nearly 200 investigators works in a building designed for collaboration on the study of emerging pathogens, says EPI’s director, Dr. J. Glenn Morris Jr. “‘My goal is to bring faculty together to build a strong interdisciplinary spirit and to play on each other’s strengths. If you put them all together in one room and close the door, it is amazing what can happen,’” he explained to Hundley.

When the building was first dedicated, the capacity for collaboration was a main focus of the efforts that would take place at EPI.

Hundley interviewed several of the researchers collaborating at EPI. Greg Glass, a medical geographer and expert in immunology, is working on a map of Florida ticks that will plot just what parasites and infections can be contracted from the insect. Parker A. Small Jr., a pediatrician and immunology expert who—although a professor emeritus—continues to work with EPI, studies the public’s response to influenza and other infections. Eben Kenaha biostatistician and epidemiologist, and Juliet Pulliam, a biologist, both study how viruses spread from animals to humans. In the below video from the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, Pulliam discusses just one way to study such transmission.

While some study exotic diseases—like Taj Azarian, who has studied the cholera outbreak in Haiti and the ebola epidemic—others, like Cuc Tran and Kathleen Ryan, have helped create programs for issues affecting our lives each and every year. Together, Tran and Ryan helped create and support a school-located flu vaccination program. Tran wrote a paper on her school vaccination research and was awarded a place in the CDC EIS (Epidemic Intelligence Service) training program for her work.

The vaccination program ties into research from Ira M. Longini Jr., who discovered that inoculating school children—a critical carrier population for the flu—could significantly reduce the spread of the disease.

Together, all of the researchers share a goal to inform the public and shape a proper reaction to the very real threat of disease.

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Categories: Gatorbytes

Author:University Press of Florida

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