Pioneering the science of disease forecasting

"I never imagined where mosquitoes would take me," says Gonzalo Vazquez Prokopec, assistant professor of environmental sciences. In the past few months, his research on mosquitoes and their role in spreading vector-borne and parasitic diseases has indeed taken the ecologist around the world, from the Peruvian city of Iquitos to northern Australia, from Cuba to the White House.

Prokopec works at the interface of ecology, statistics, and public health to understand the occurrence and transmission of diseases such as dengue, West Nile, and Chagas. He is pursuing a way to understand and quantify the environmental and social transmission of these diseases, particularly in urban landscapes.

His pioneering approach to the science of disease forecasting draws on GPS technology coupled with statistical and mathematical models. By linking ecologic theory with applied epidemiology, he uncovers patterns that show how vector-borne diseases are distributed and maintained. He believes that combining this knowledge with public health expertise -- in concert with developing vaccines -- can lead to improved policies to prevent and contain epidemics.

"To predict disease outbreaks, it's essential to understand not only carriers like mosquitoes but also people -- where they go and what they do," Prokopec says. "Humans act like long-distance vectors in moving disease around the globe."

He is working in settings and with partners worldwide to hone this science. For example, in Iquitos, he is part of an NIH study to identify the drivers of the rapid propagation of dengue in urban areas. In the Yucatan peninsula, he is involved in understanding how vector control and vaccines can be integrated to help prevent dengue virus transmission. Recently, he delivered a keynote speech at an international dengue symposium held in La Havana, where he sees opportunities for further collaboration with Cuban researchers. And he was part of a select working group convened by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

At Emory, Prokopec involves undergraduates and graduate students in similar studies. More than 70 students have volunteered in his lab since 2008, and undergraduates in his classes currently are engaged in field-based studies of West Nile virus in local parks.