Alumnae researchers model caution and hope for life beyond lockdown

From left: Erin Mordecai (BS ’07) and Mallory Harris (BS ’18)

Erin Mordecai (BS ’07) and Mallory Harris (BS ’18) both began their pursuit of higher education in Athens.

Now they are at Stanford University, where Mordecai is an assistant professor of biology leading Harris, a Ph.D. student, on a team of infectious diseases researchers. Mordecai recently made headlines for a COVID-19 intervention model her team developed.

Preventing a second wave

Their interactive website allows users to model the spread of COVID-19 over time using non-pharmaceutical interventions, like social distancing and quarantine. Wary of the resurgence of the 1918 flu pandemic, when most major cities ended control measures within eight weeks, Mordecai and her team wanted to help people understand the effectiveness of long-term strategies.

“Our model, and historical evidence, shows that fully lifting control measures at any point in the epidemic could lead to a second wave,” Mordecai said. “When you have a population where most of the people remain susceptible, fully returning to business as usual is extremely risky, and could result in many lives lost unnecessarily.”

Screenshot of the interactive website developed by Mordecai’s team. Source: https://covid-measures.github.io/.

 As communities begin assessing how long social distancing measures need to be in place, Mordecai believes it is important to recognize how to prevent a resurgence.

“There’s a lag of about three weeks between an intervention being lifted and its resulting effect on deaths,” Mordecai said. “Since we don’t yet have adequate testing capacity in most regions of the U.S., policymakers won’t be able to begin assessing the results of their actions until three weeks later, when the virus could have spread widely through the population.”

In order to prevent that problem, communities are developing processes to manage a potential second wave.

“There may be some potential to bring a second peak under control and respond more quickly if testing is sufficiently widespread prior to reopening and if it’s combined with rigorous contact tracing and infected isolation,” Mordecai said.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel for communities eager to return to normalcy. However, communities must be prepared to move to a test-and-trace system, in which testing is widespread and those who encounter sick individuals are isolated. They also must be able to intensify and relax social distancing and quarantine measures based on the number of hospitalizations and deaths.

“Our work shows that we could considerably relax the level of social distancing we’re practicing in the general population if we could more comprehensively test all symptomatic and high-risk individuals for COVID-19 and isolate them to prevent transmission,” Mordecai explained.

Mordecai’s model has become a useful tool for San Francisco Bay Area public officials as it allows them to compare different exit strategies, while seeing how their policies now will affect their options down the road.

The Georgia Connection

Mordecai was a Foundation Fellow, a Ramsey scholar and an honors student while at UGA, where she earned her honors interdisciplinary studies degree in mathematical biology. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“Fortunately for me, UGA remains a world leader in the ecology of infectious disease, and these deep research connections continue to bring me back to campus at least once a year,” Mordecai said.

As for how two UGA alumnae came to work in the same lab on the opposite side of the country from Athens, Mordecai and Harris attribute their good fortunes to Jessica Hunt, the assistant director and scholarships coordinator for the UGA Honors Program.

“I will be forever grateful for Jessica for putting Mallory in touch with me,” Mordecai said. “Jessica saw the connection between Mallory’s interest in modeling infectious disease dynamics and my lab’s work on understanding how climate affects vector-borne disease.”

Harris (right) conducted research alongside distinguished research professor John Drake (left) as an undergraduate at UGA. Drake introduced Harris to a mathematical method to forecast where and when a disease outbreak will happen.

Harris, originally from Dunwoody, chose UGA over Harvard University to become a Foundation Fellow. As a sophomore, Harris received a Center for Undergraduate Research Office (CURO) scholarship to conduct research alongside John Drake, distinguished research professor and associate dean for academic affairs in the Odum School of Ecology. Drake introduced Harris to a mathematical method to forecast where and when a disease outbreak will happen. Through her research, Harris determined that this method can predict the movement of mosquito-transmitted diseases. For her discovery, Harris was awarded the Barry Goldwater Scholarship, a national scholarship for undergraduate students pursuing research careers.

She spent the summer of 2017 working as a National Science Foundation-funded researcher in Mordecai’s lab, where she studied Zika emergence and how its spread depended on climate. She also worked in John Drake’s lab at the Center for the Ecology of Infectious Diseases during her undergraduate career, studying the forecasting of vector-borne disease resurgence.

When Harris was ready to graduate with degrees in mathematics and computational biology, Mordecai was happy to recruit her to Stanford to pursue her Ph.D. Harris received the prestigious Knight-Hennessy Fellowship and joined Mordecai’s lab in fall of 2019.

“I was really fortunate to have the experience of working with Dr. Mordecai prior to applying to graduate school,” Harris said. “I already knew that she’d help me grow as a scientist, but also that she’d look out for me as a person over the next several years.”

In addition to COVID-19 and infectious diseases, Mordecai also keeps Harris updated on Georgia football news. As for Harris’ plans after graduate school, she plans to continue working to improve the response to public health emergencies.

“I’d like to help guide predictive approaches to infectious diseases through modeling, so that we can respond to diseases more quickly and effectively,” Harris said. “Right now, I’m particularly interested in the ways that local governmental decisions affected outcomes in the early stages of the pandemic.”

 

Make a gift to the COVID-19 Research Fund to support collaborative research efforts related to COVID-19 at the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine. Or become a support system for a UGA student, like Mordecai is for Harris, by joining the UGA Mentor Program.