Category: Announcements

UGA epidemiologist tracks tuberculosis using cellphone records

Tuberculosis is the ninth leading cause of death worldwide, and though the World Health Organization has said the average global burden of disease is on the decline, some areas of the world continue to feel its impact.

Researchers at the University of Georgia have received a $2.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to understand the local epidemiology of TB in African urban settings and help these communities develop targeted interventions to reduce transmission.

Led by physician and epidemiologist Christopher Whalen at UGA’s College of Public Health, the team will estimate where TB is being transmitted by combining information about patient movement with genetic information from the bacteria itself. Understanding where transmission is happening is the key to effective control, said Whalen.

The standard approach to tuberculosis control today relies on detection and treatment of tuberculosis disease, but this approach doesn’t work in areas where the disease burden is high.

“By the time a case is diagnosed and treated, the next generation of cases has already been newly infected,” he said.

Whalen has been working with colleagues in Makarere University in Kampala, Uganda, for years trying to discover better ways to limit TB transmission.

From 2012 to 2017, Whalen conducted a study to track how TB moves within communities, but his findings were perplexing. The infection didn’t seem to spread within known social networks. That begged the question, where is transmission occurring?

“Then it dawned on me,” said Whalen. “Everyone is carrying a cellphone. By using archived cellphone records, we would be able to map where TB cases move and measure how much time they spent in different places.”

Whalen’s team collected preliminary data using cellphone records from 15 TB patients, and they found that these patients tended to go to the same spots.

“There are hot spots, or places where TB patients spend a lot of time. With this information, you can target areas with the usual community control strategies, such as TB screening, active case finding, and education. If you collect this cellphone information going forward, you’ll be able to see if your control strategies worked,” explained Whalen.

The new project will expand Whalen’s previous work to include genomic information about the organisms that will reveal the order and timing of TB infection among the cases. When this information is combined with the mobility data, the team will be able map where transmission is occurring at different levels within Kampala.

Whalen hopes this approach will provide an actionable prevention tool for tuberculosis control programs in communities facing a high disease burden.

CPH Establishes Holbrook Distinguished Professorship

The College of Public Health at the University of Georgia is celebrating the formal establishment of the Karen and Jim Holbrook Distinguished Professorship in Global Health. Dr. Karen Holbrook was Provost at UGA from 1998 to 2002. She subsequently served as president of the Ohio State University and has sustained a career-long involvement with international research universities and their efforts in global health.

At UGA, she was instrumental in the creation of the College of Public Health, working in close cooperation with founding dean, Dr. Phillip Williams, and other campus leaders. The Holbrooks made their verbal commitment of $250,000 for the endowment in the late summer of 2015. The funding was completed in December 2016, with a $250,000 match from the UGA Alumni Foundation.

In addition, the Holbrooks have pledged an additional $250,000 to endow a fund supporting graduate student research abroad. The addition of a distinguished professorship at the Institute is expected to accelerate the college’s current global health research initiatives and strengthen its academic program.

Davis-Olwell selected as UGA Service-Learning Fellow

Dr. Paula Davis-Olwell, an instructor in the Global Health Institute and Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, is one of nine UGA faculty members selected for a 2017-18 UGA Service-Learning Fellowship.

This year-long program provides an opportunity for faculty members from a broad range of disciplines to integrate academic service-learning into their professional practice. Fellows meet regularly throughout the academic year and receive an award of up to $2,500 to develop a proposed service-learning project.

Academic service-learning, one way for students to fulfill UGA’s new experiential learning graduation requirement, integrates organized service activities that meet community-identified needs into academic courses as a way to enhance understanding of academic content, teach civic responsibility and provide benefit to the community.

“Each year, faculty come up with new and innovative ways to link their scholarship to some of our most pressing community needs,” said Shannon Wilder, director of the Office of Service-Learning. “It’s exciting to see the types of experiential learning opportunities they are creating for students in their service-learning courses that gives them hands-on experience that is invaluable.”

Davis-Olwell will engage students in a global health service-learning project in collaboration with Jubilee Partners and other community organizations addressing refugee resettlement. Her proposed project will focus on the health and nutrition needs of refugees and their families.

GHI researchers receive seed funding for mobile phone-based TB treatment monitoring

Athens, Ga. — Six collaborative, international research projects housed at the University of Georgia have received seed funding under UGA’s Global Research Collaboration Grant program.

The program funds a range of early-stage projects with significant global impact. Each initiative received between $4,000 and $8,000 to cover initial project costs.

“Some of the most important challenges facing researchers today are global in nature,” said Brian Watkins, director of international partnerships at the Office of International Education. “Solving them requires international engagement. By providing initial support to promising projects, UGA can enhance its global reach and reputation.”

Funding is provided twice a year by the Office of International Education and the Office of Research, matched by academic departments.

“These types of seed grants showcase the depth and breadth of the international research collaborations being carried out by UGA faculty with partners in the top universities around the world,” said Noel Fallows, associate provost for international education. “Our facilitation further positions the Office of International Education as the nexus for international teaching and research initiatives at UGA.”

Juliet Sekandi, a faculty member in the epidemiology and biostatistics department, and Christopher Whalen, Ernest Corn Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology, both from the College of Public Health, are collaborating with Esther Buregyeya, Lynn Atuyambe and Frederick Makumbi from the Makerere University School of Public Health in Uganda on mobile phone-based treatment monitoring for tuberculosis patients. The project will develop a pilot mobile app and test the feasibility of remote observation by heath workers to ensure patients are complying with their treatment regimens.

James Beasley, a faculty member at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory and the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, is collaborating with Thomas Hinton of Fukushima University in Japan to study the effects of low dose radiation exposure on wildlife inhabiting the Fukushima Exclusion Zone. The two researchers recently collaborated on similar research in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

In this study, they will collect pilot data on the distribution of wildlife species in the zone and will fit several wild boar with GPS-dosimetry collars to collect location and radiation exposure data on the animals. The project’s goal is to provide a picture of the ecological consequences of energy production and potential accidents, using a systems approach to assess radiation effects on wildlife at molecular, individual, population and community levels.

Nicole Gottdenker, a faculty member in the College of Veterinary Medicine’s pathology department, John Drake and John Paul Schmidt from the Odum School of Ecology and Travis Glenn from the College of Public Health’s environmental health sciences department, are collaborating with Azael Saldana and Jose Calzada from the Instituto Conmemorativo Gogas de Estudios de la Salud in Panama and Jennifer Peterson from the Universidad Peruana Cayetabo Heredia in Peru on the relationship between the spread of palm oil plantations and the transmission of Chagas disease.

David Okech from the School of Social Work, Nathan Hansen from the health promotion and behavior department in the College of Public Health and Jody Clay-Warner from the sociology department in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences are collaborating with John Anarfi from the University of Ghana on giving survivors of human trafficking a voice in developing effective reintegration services.

The first phase of their collaboration has produced research on the psychological, social and economic consequences of trafficking. The seed grant will fund the next phase, which includes interviewing survivors and identifying service gaps in existing reintegration programs.

Javad M. Velni, Changying “Charlie” Li and WenZhan Song of the College of Engineering are collaborating with Herbert Warner from Germany’s Hamburg University of Technology to develop tools to help maintain communications and avoid data bottlenecks among complex systems of robots when they’re performing joint tasks in harsh environments that may interfere with normal communication methods. The portion of the work funded by the grant will focus on developing a system model and a communication method that cuts down on the amount of data that must be transferred among robots.

Nina Wurzburger from the School of Ecology is collaborating with Michael P. Oatham from the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Jack Brookshire from Montana State University to study the interaction of various soil nutrients on a forest’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Using new field studies and taking advantage of more than 30 years of tropical forest data from the Victoria-Mayaro Forest Reserve in Trinidad, the team seeks to understand how these forests respond to global changes in the environment, and eventually to develop a model for sustainable forestry in tropical regions.

“This program is a vital component of our ongoing efforts to increase international collaborations, help solve the planet’s grand challenges and secure additional funding for the world-class research conducted at UGA,” said UGA Vice President for Research David Lee.

Applications are due Oct. 10 for the fourth round of Global Research Collaboration Grant funding. Details can be found at http://bit.ly/2yhXQ4r.

This story originally appear in UGA’s Columns magazine.

GHI’s Dr. Christopher Whalen honored with Beckman Award

Athens, Ga. – For the third time in three years, a University of Georgia professor has been honored with the Elizabeth Hurlock Beckman Award for teaching excellence. Dr. Christopher Whalen in the College of Public Health was one of eight professors nationwide selected for the honor.

The award is given to faculty members who inspire their former students to “make a significant contribution to society,” typically in the form of an organization that substantially benefits their communities.

“I commend Dr. Whalen for this achievement and for the lasting impact he has made on global health through his outstanding teaching and mentoring,” said UGA President Jere W. Morehead.

Whalen is the Ernest Corn Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology and director of UGA’s Global Health Institute. As a physician-epidemiologist, he is one of the leading international researchers studying HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis transmission in Africa. Joining the faculty at the College of Public Health in 2008, Whalen brought with him a program he established at Case Western Reserve University to train Ugandan health professionals in the scientific disciplines necessary to address the infectious disease crisis in their home country and throughout Africa.

His program continues to thrive at UGA, supported by a $1.9 million grant from the Fogarty Training Center at the National Institutes of Health. Over his career, Whalen has trained more than 75 students who have returned to Uganda and made immediate impacts on the health care system there.

“The impact of Dr. Whalen’s work ripples across time and continents, improving health and quality of life while inspiring others to join the fight against infectious diseases,” said Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Pamela Whitten. “He epitomizes the University of Georgia’s global reach, and I am delighted that he has been recognized with this significant honor.”

Dr. Elioda Tumwesigye, who trained with Whalen in the mid-1990s, wrote in his letter of support that “the training was life changing, as I got to master not only the concepts of public health and preventive science, but got skills in writing, computing and communication. His mentorship was (and still is) inspirational and applies to my work every day.”

Upon his return to Uganda, Tumwesigye founded several nonprofit organizations that provide a variety of health prevention, education and treatment services, including treatment for HIV/AIDS, to people in rural Ugandan communities.

“The organizations which I started with mentoring from Dr. Whalen proved pivotal and actually catalyzed my being elected to represent my people in the parliament of Uganda in 2001,” said Tumwesigye, who led Africa’s first standing committee on HIV/AIDS. Tumwesigye later became minister of health in 2015.

“It’s an honor to receive this award and be supported by the College of Public Health and the university,” said Whalen, “but especially to be supported by my former students and now colleagues.”

Whalen also received a letter of support from Stephen Asiimwe, who trained with him at UGA and went on to earn a doctorate of public health in 2013. Asiimwe now directs Integrated Community Based Initiatives, one of the nonprofit organizations founded by Tumwesigye, where he carries forward Whalen’s spirit of mentorship.

“He taught me how important it is to share our knowledge to help shape the next generation of scientists and public professionals,” wrote Asiimwe.

“When we hired Dr. Whalen, we were aware of his major scientific discoveries and his work to prevent the transmission of TB and HIV in Ugandan populations. We are pleased that this work has continued with the assistance of UGA faculty and students,” said Phillip L. Williams, dean of the College of Public Health. “He certainly deserves the Beckman Award.”

Whalen will receive a $25,000 award and will be honored at a ceremony to take place later this year. He joins associate professor Dawn D. Bennett-Alexander in the Terry College of Business and professor Melisa “Misha” Cahnmann-Taylor in the College of Education, who each received a Beckman Award in 2015.

The Beckman Award was created by Gail McKnight Beckman in 2008 in memory of her mother, Dr. Elizabeth Hurlock Beckman, who was a celebrated educator and author and was one of the first female psychology professors at Columbia University.

This story originally appeared on UGA Today.

GHI alumnus Dr. Leo Martinez awarded Stephen Lawn TB-HIV Research Leadership Prize

CPH alumnus Dr. Leo Martinez was just awarded the Stephen Lawn HIV-TB Research Leadership Prize from the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease.

Martinez, who is now a post-doctoral associate at Sanford University, completed his Ph.D. in epidemiology in Spring 2017 under the mentorship of Dr. Christopher Whalen. His research focuses on identifying where person-to-person tuberculosis transmission occurs and applying meaningful, effective interventions and policy recommendations to mitigate disease spread.

The Stephen Lawn Memorial Fund, which supports the prize, was established in 2016 through a global partnership between the TB Centre of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (UK), the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre, at the University of Cape Town, South Africa and The Union, also supported by The Lancet. The Prize will be presented at Union World Conference on Lung Health in October.

Steve Lawn was a professor of Infectious Diseases and Tropical Medicine at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and worked at the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre, University of Cape Town. He made major contributions to diagnosis and treatment of tuberculosis among people with AIDS, authoring over 250 publications and receiving many awards.Steve’s love of Africa was catalyzed by a trans-Saharan expedition and he was passionate about improving health for the poorest.

UGA graduate student receives Schlumberger Fellowship to study tuberculosis transmission

Athens, Ga. – University of Georgia doctoral student María Eugenia Castellanos has been awarded a 2016-2017 Schlumberger Foundation Faculty for the Future Fellowship to fund her research on tuberculosis transmission in Guatemala.

Castellanos, a doctoral student studying epidemiology in the UGA College of Public Health, will work to identify the risk factors associated with TB and spread of with TB—especially in HIV patients. The one-year, renewable Schlumberger Foundation grant provides women scientists from developing and emerging countries up to $50,000 to pursue advanced degrees in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics field.

“The leading causes of death in Guatemala are preventable and treatable infectious diseases,” Castellanos said. “Tuberculosis, in particular, is an illness that affects the most vulnerable people and one that we have not been able to reduce the prevalence of in the last 10 years.”

For her project, Castellanos will analyze isolates of the bacteria that cause mycobacterium tuberculosis from patients at Clínica Familiar “Luis Angel García,” an HIV specialty clinic within Guatemala City’s General Hospital.

HIV-positive people are at particular risk for TB infection. Her research will identify the strains of TB more prevalent in this particularly vulnerable population and also look at the clinical and epidemiological risk factors that might increase a patient’s chance of having a recent transmission of this disease.

“If we understand the main risk factors that lead a patient to have a particular strain of TB, we can create interventions that will allow health policymakers in Guatemala to direct targeted TB control measures at high-risk populations,” she said. “Over the last 20 years, there have only been a handful of papers published about tuberculosis in Guatemala. Not many people are able to do any type of research, often because of lack of funding and lack of resources, so I think this is going to be very important work.”

Castellanos received her bachelor’s degree in chemical biology from the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala in 2005 and, with the support of a Joint Japan-Inter-American Development Bank Scholarship, traveled to England to study tuberculosis at University of Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. She completed a master’s degree in medical microbiology there in 2008.

Returning to her hometown of Guatemala City, Castellanos accepted a position at the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala teaching and working as a research assistant in the Malaria and Vector Biology Unit of the university’s Center for Health Studies.

In 2014, she came to the U.S. supported by a Fulbright fellowship and a desire to pursue a doctoral degree under the mentorship of Dr. Christopher Whalen, Ernest Corn Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the UGA College of Public Health.

“Dr. Whalen is one of the leading TB researchers in the world with over 25 years working on TB in low-income, international settings; and he is the main reason I chose UGA for my graduate studies,” Castellanos said. “I feel proud to be doing something, in collaboration both with Dr. Whalen and a great group of talented Guatemalan researchers, that we, the people of Guatemala, can do to help our country. The only way that we will be able to advance is if we start shaping our fate.”

Recognizing the link between science, technology and socioeconomic development, as well as the role of education in realizing individual potential, the Schlumberger Foundation established its flagship program, Faculty for the Future, in 2004. Since then, 600 women from 78 emerging countries have received Faculty for the Future fellowships to pursue advanced graduate studies at top universities abroad.

Castellanos is the second doctoral student from the college’s department of epidemiology and biostatistics to receive the international award. Dr. Jane Mutanga-Mutembo, whose fellowship was renewed for a second year, is developing mobile technology in Zambia to help people living with HIV maintain adherence to the lifelong medication regimens needed to keep the virus suppressed.

“Guatemala is definitely a country where machismo is still very prevalent,” Castellanos said. “And combined with lack of financial resources, women in my country don’t tend to be able to advance at the graduate level and earn a master’s or Ph.D. degree. I feel as more women are able achieve this level of success, we can do more for the women who come after.”

After the completion of her degree, Castellanos plans to return to Universidad del Valle de Guatemala to build her own research program in tuberculosis and ultimately, she hopes, participate in the establishment of a leading research center for infectious diseases in the Central American region.

“There is still a lot to do in the study of the epidemiology of tuberculosis and other infectious diseases in Guatemala and Central America,” Castellanos said. “My dream is that my Ph.D. program will permit me to better participate in their control and management, as it can be a doorway to the improvement in the lives of many Guatemalan people. That’s big, but, yeah, that is my dream.”

This story originally appeared on UGA Today.

UGA receives $1.49 million grant for HIV, TB research training in Uganda

Athens, Ga. – Every year, 50,000 people die in East Africa from tuberculosis. Worldwide, 1.5 million people die from the disease. And when HIV infection is added to the mix, TB becomes even more deadly. The University of Georgia is fighting against these numbers with a new $1.49 million grant from the Fogarty International Center of the National Institutes of Health.

UGA is partnering with Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, to train Ugandan scientists in new and emerging methods increasingly important in understanding the complex transmission dynamics of HIV and Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium responsible for tuberculosis.

According to the World Health Organization, TB infections now rival HIV/AIDS as a leading cause of death from infectious diseases. Persons co-infected with TB and HIV are estimated to be 27-32 times more likely to develop active TB disease than persons without HIV.

“Infectious diseases do not respect human political borders,” said Dr. Christopher Whalen, the grant’s principal investigator and the Ernest Corn Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology in the UGA College of Public Health. “What is in Africa today could be in the U.S. tomorrow. Remember the concern about Ebola? It is better to contain infectious diseases at their source. To do this, you must build capacity in areas where the disease is most serious.”

UGA will use the five-year grant to enhance computational and molecular epidemiology training in tuberculosis and HIV in Uganda. To achieve this goal, the program will train two predoctoral students in molecular and computational epidemiology, offer non-degree technical training in computational epidemiology and bioinformatics, and support a variety of additional research and training activities in Uganda.

Training will be integrated into ongoing research projects Whalen is leading to investigate how social interactions that make up daily life in Uganda contribute to TB transmission in the context of a mature HIV epidemic.

Bioinformatics and computational epidemiology are currently not available in Uganda. “Disease transmission is difficult to study because it involves a community,” Whalen said. “Since it is not possible to study everyone in a community, we use the molecular and computational approaches to infer patterns of transmission within the community.”

The program builds on 25 years of research and training collaborations Whalen has established with public health and academic institutions in Uganda and will further enhance the research capacity needed to address the country’s co-epidemics of TB and HIV.

Key collaborators from Makerere University include Moses Joloba, chair of the department of medical microbiology in the College of Health Sciences; and Noah Kiwanuka, an infectious disease epidemiologist at its School of Public Health.

Andreas Handel, associate professor, and Ming Zhang, assistant professor in the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the UGA College of Public Health, will also contribute to the program’s training efforts.

The research is being supported by the Fogarty International Center of the National Institutes of Health under award number D43TW010045.

This story was originally published on UGA Today on November 10, 2015.

Former provost gives $500,000 to UGA College of Public Health

Athens, Ga. – The University of Georgia College of Public Health has received a $500,000 gift to create the Karen and Jim Holbrook Distinguished Professorship and an endowed fellowship to support graduate students in the global health field.

Karen Holbrook served as UGA provost and senior vice president for academic affairs from 1998 to 2002 before being named president of The Ohio State University. Jim Holbrook is a retired oceanographer and past deputy director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Research Laboratory in Seattle.

The gift reflects the Holbrooks’ lifelong commitment to higher education, the health sciences and global collaboration as well as their strong affection for UGA. The UGA Foundation is providing an additional $250,000 for the distinguished professorship in recognition of Holbrook’s transformative tenure as provost at UGA and to honor her remarkable service record in higher education.

“In addition to her enduring contributions at UGA as provost, Dr. Holbrook has served as an intellectual and administrative leader at some of the most prominent public research universities in the country,” said President Jere W. Morehead. “She has remained a close and supportive friend of the UGA community throughout her career, and we are deeply honored that she and Jim have decided to make this generous gift to UGA at this time.”

Together, the Holbrook Distinguished Professorship and Graduate Fellowship will build upon existing strengths in global health research throughout the college, increase international collaborations and expand experiential learning activities for students in international public health.

During Holbrook’s tenure as provost, she advocated for new programs in the biomedical and health sciences, which eventually led to the creation of the College of Public Health. Throughout her career, she has served as an advocate and catalyst for international research collaboration, and she continues to build relationships between institutions of higher education in the U.S. and abroad.

“I was very fortunate to work with colleagues at UGA during a time of real transformation and expansion into new program areas,” Holbrook said. “It is so gratifying to see many of those ideas have taken root. Now seems like a good time to invest in realizing more of the college’s potential for conducting meaningful international research and to emphasize the impact this activity can have for students.”

Holbrook is now a well-established higher education expert and consultant who has worked with a number of educational institutions at the international level. She currently serves as a senior adviser to the president at the University of South Florida and is on the boards of the Institute of International Education, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, CRDF Global, Bio-Techne and Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. She was a past board chair for Oak Ridge Associated Universities.

Holbrook’s academic resume includes serving as vice president for research and dean of the University of Florida’s Graduate School; senior vice president for global affairs and international research at the University of South Florida; and associate dean for scientific affairs at the University of Washington School of Medicine, where she was also a professor of biological structure who directed a heavily funded research laboratory in dermatology.

Her additional board service includes the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Association of American Medical Colleges, the American Council of Education, the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (now APLU), the Association of American Universities, the Council of Graduate Schools and the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education.

She began her career as a biomedical researcher and National Institutes of Health MERIT Award Investigator. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in zoology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and a doctorate in biological structure at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

The Holbrooks’ gift was announced Oct. 5 at the College of Public Health’s 10th Anniversary Celebration on the UGA Health Sciences Campus. The first Holbrook Professor is expected to be named by January 2017.

“The College of Public Health could not have originated when it did without the clear vision of Dr. Karen Holbrook, who recognized both a significant need for more public health professionals in Georgia and a way that UGA could contribute to the solution,” said Phillip L. Williams, dean of the college. “Her decision now, 15 years later, with a different but equally clear and forceful vision for enhancing international research, will be just as significant as her earlier role.”

UGA College of Public Health
Founded in 2005 as a response to the state’s need to address important health concerns in Georgia, the UGA College of Public Health offers degree programs in biostatistics, disaster management, environmental health, epidemiology, gerontology, global health, health promotion and behavior, public health, health policy and management and toxicology. For more information, see www.publichealth.uga.edu.

This story was originally published on UGA Today, October 8, 2015.