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‘Virulent Vortex’ video podcast reveals the personalities behind infectious disease science
Jaap de Roode and Stephanie Bellman

Jaap de Roode, professor of biology and host of “The Virulent Vortex,” sits down with Stephanie Bellman, an MD/PhD candidate in environmental health sciences, for an upcoming episode of the video podcast.

A vortex, or a swirling flow of energy, can be observed in fluids, smoke, water and wind. To Emory biostatistician Lance Waller, a vortex is a perfect visualization for the complex swirl of data scientists collect and analyze to tackle questions about an infectious disease outbreak.

For instance, if you want to know the virulence of a strain of seasonal flu, you strive to get samples of the virus strain, knowledge about the number of cases being reported, where and when the cases are reported and details about the demographics of the patients.

Waller, professor of biostatistics and bioinformatics in Rollins School of Public Health, breaks down the process into four quadrants: You start by deciding the questions you want to answer. Then you work to gather the data that you need in order to get these answers. Next, you analyze the data that you are actually able to get. Finally, you answer the questions that you are able to, based on the available data.

“The most important part is how close the questions we can answer are to the questions that we want to answer,” Waller says. “And it’s a vortex because we’ve gone in a circle. We might say, ‘Okay, well, I want to know more. There’s additional data that I can try to find.’ Oftentimes we’ll keep going around this circle — especially with research into infectious disease across scales — multiple times with different types of data. We hope to drill down and get better and better pictures at different scales.”

Waller was the first guest on a new video podcast, “The Virulent Vortex,” available on YouTube. The podcast takes its name from the analogy that Waller made famous among students during his 25 years teaching at Emory. In a little more than eight minutes, he talks about what it means to study infectious diseases across scales, shows examples from his map collection and talks about how maps can help save people from pathogens. 

‘Communication is key’

The Virulent Vortex is a joint production of two cross-cutting Emory initiatives: the Infectious Diseases Across Scales Training Program (IDASTP) and From Molecules and Pathogens to Populations and Pandemics (MP3 Initiative).

“The idea behind ‘The Virulent Vortex’ is to have people who work in infectious disease at Emory explain their science in ways that a lay audience can understand,” says Jaap de Roode, Emory professor of biology. “It’s important to communicate science well. One thing we learned during the pandemic is that communication is key and that communication can go very, very wrong.”

De Roode hosts the podcast, interviewing a different guest for each episode. De Roode also serves as director of the IDASTP and co-director of MP3 (along with Guido Silvestri, director of microbiology and immunology at the Emory National Primate Research Center and professor in Emory University School of Medicine’s Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine; and Ken Moberg, professor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Cell Biology).

‘Everything is connected’

The MP3 Initiative provides seed grants of up to $250,000 to support collaborative projects on infectious disease research that transcends scales. The program is a joint initiative of the Office of the Provost, Emory College of Arts and Sciences, Woodruff Health Sciences, the School of Medicine and the Office of Research Administration.

The IDASTP, which provides cross-disciplinary training and career development for graduate students involved in infectious disease research, is funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and currently supported by the Laney Graduate School, Emory College, Rollins School of Public Health and the Department of Biology.

“There was growing recognition that a lot of the challenges that we face in infectious disease cannot be solved by approaching them from a traditional, siloed point of view,” says de Roode, who is an expert in host-parasite interactions.

“You cannot understand pandemics without understanding where viruses come from, how they cross species barriers and how they travel around the globe,” de Roode explains. “If you are just studying a pathogen or immunology or the ecology of bats, you can’t solve the problem of a pandemic. Everything is connected. Ecologists need to understand something about immunology and immunologists need to understand something about ecology. It’s important for everyone involved to know something about public health approaches, the role of human behavior and how vaccine trials work.”

The launch of the MP3 and IDASTP initiatives in fall 2019 proved prophetic. A few months later, the COVID-19 pandemic began sweeping the globe.

Emory played a key role in COVID-19 vaccine development, health care of patients and groundbreaking medical, ecological and public health research during the pandemic, confirming its position as an international leader in interdisciplinary approaches to infectious diseases. 

Moving forward

So far, 24 graduate students have participated in IDASTP, including eight who have graduated and gone on to work in research ranging from controlling agricultural pests to understanding human diseases. A total of 46 faculty and 37 postdoctoral fellows, predoctoral fellows and students have been supported by the MP3 Initiative. The $5 million in seed grants awarded to them have so far stimulated approximately $77 million in outside research funding for Emory.

Last spring, members of the MP3 and IDASTP initiatives participated in a retreat in the north Georgia mountains.

“We had launched these initiatives right before the pandemic and had spent much of their development meeting on Zoom,” de Roode recalls. “We really wanted to get people together to stimulate ideas for going forward.”

The idea for "The Virulent Vortex" grew out of the brainstorming at the retreat.

“We want to get away from complex slides about science,” de Roode says. “We are giving people a chance to get to the basics of why they do what they do, how their work can help control diseases and improve public health. It’s an opportunity for our faculty and students to shine.”

Showcasing personality and passion

A private company that often works with Emory initiatives, called The Recording Service, was tapped to film 21 episodes of “The Virulent Vortex,” in locations at Convocation Hall and the Carlos Museum.

Several episodes are already out. The second episode features Mirko Paiardini, associate professor of the Emory Vaccine Center, the School of Medicine and a researcher at the Emory Primate Center. He describes his work demonstrating the inflammation-prevention properties of the drug baricitinib, which is now widely used to save lives of COVID-19 patients.

In the third episode, biology graduate student Sandra Mendiola explains how beneficial bacterial bugs can stop insects from spreading harmful bacteria bugs to squash plants.

“Each episode is different and interesting in its own way,” says de Roode, who worked as a science journalist before entering his PhD program. “Everyone has their own personality and their own passion for infectious disease research.”

The feedback has been positive, he adds. “People enjoy seeing their colleagues and students talking about their research in a fun, relaxed way.”

The long-term goal is to interview every faculty and graduate student participant in the MP3 and IDASTP initiatives and also branch into alumni who have graduated and started jobs elsewhere.

“It would be really helpful for our students to learn how other students benefited from the interdisciplinary training that they received and how it applies in their careers,” de Roode says.

And while the primary goal is to foster community among participants in the MP3 and IDASTP initiatives and those who might be considering joining them, anyone who is interested in infectious diseases is likely to enjoy episodes of the Virulent Vortex.

Every few weeks, new episodes will be released through the IDASTP newsletter, News Across Scales, and via YouTube. To join the newsletter listserv, email Todd Swink, associate director of the MP3 Initiative and IDASTP, at:

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