Lauren Ancel Meyers and Sam Scarpino, both External Professors at SFI, have received funds from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for furthering research into disease prediction. (image: InSight Foto, 2014)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has committed more than $250 million to become better prepared for disease outbreaks like COVID-19 — and they’re turning to two SFI researchers, Sam Scarpino of Northeastern University and Lauren Ancel Meyers of the University of Texas at Austin (UT), to help make it happen.

The CDC is building a network of 13 centers for forecasting and analyzing infectious diseases. Meyers will lead a project receiving $27.5 million, while Scarpino’s EPISTORM Center, led by Professor Alessandro Vespignani, will receive $17.5 million

Meyers and Scarpino each did research early in their careers at SFI, and both have since participated in and organized many workshops at SFI, including recent ones on “Digital Disease Surveillance” and “Simulation Games for Pandemic Preparedness.” 

“The many SFI workshops I have organized and attended over the last 25 years have fostered my innovative and interdisciplinary approaches to building models that elucidate the human, biological and environmental drivers of epidemics,” Meyers says.

In the early 2000s, Meyers (together with SFI’s Mark Newman) applied network theory to epidemiological modeling for the first time, showing that people’s patterns of interactions enormously influence the way some pathogens spread. Meyers and Scarpino expanded this powerful toolkit to many types of pathogens, and when COVID-19 appeared, these tools allowed both researchers to quickly produce models that the virus posed. Throughout the pandemic, Meyers led a large consortium of researchers from UT, SFI, and other institutions worldwide to build models to forecast hospitalization rates and design effective mitigation strategies. She received a Key to the City from the Mayor of Austin, Texas for designing the city’s COVID-19 staged alert system and providing expert guidance that helped Austin to maintain COVID-19 death rate far below that of most other cities in the U.S.

 The new grant will allow Northeastern’s EPISTORM center, where Scarpino’s group works, to build tools for predicting surges in hospitalizations for respiratory infections by combining wastewater and case data with high-resolution cellphone mobility data using artificial intelligence. They will design these tools to meet the needs of rural hospitals, which are often neglected, as well as urban ones. Meyers’ new project will build on current COVID-19 models to better prepare U.S. public health agencies for future pathogen threats. Her team will also develop innovative educational resources, including pathogen wargames, to train public health officials to use these models during public health emergencies.

Meyers and Scarpino helped pioneer a powerful approach to incorporating complex human behavioral dynamics into epidemic models using advanced tools from math and computer science they learned at SFI. “It’s rare for someone at a postdoc level to learn in a deep fundamental way new things, and that’s a lot of what happens at SFI,” Scarpino says. “I would not be here if it weren’t for my time in Santa Fe.”