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PIIRS supports new climate change and infectious disease research community

“Indian Ocean, Climate Change and Epidemic Disease,” a new research community supported by the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS) and Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI), will bring together faculty from across a range of disciplines to examine both direct and indirect impacts of climate on human health. The community will receive up to $750,000 from PIIRS and $100,000 from PEI over the next three years to support research, conferences and course development.

C. Jessica Metcalf, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs and Class of 1934 University Preceptor in the Woodrow Wilson School; Gabriel Vecchi, professor of geosciences and the Princeton Environmental Institute; Bryan Grenfell, the Kathryn Briger and Sarah Fenton Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Public Affairs; and Amilcare Porporato, the Thomas J Wu 1994 Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, lead the community.

Three questions will drive the group’s research, Metcalf said: How exactly do climate drivers affect infectious-disease transmission, including vector-transmitted infections, such as malaria and Zika, and enteric infections, such as cholera and typhoid? What are the long-term impacts of climate shocks on aspects of health care, such as vaccination rates? What are the large- and small-scale signatures of climate patterns on infectious disease?

One or more faculty members will lead research in each of these areas, and several conferences and panels are planned to discuss findings. 

“Establishing these links is not straight-forward,” Metcalf said. “Many climatic variables vary seasonally; many infectious diseases also have seasonal peaks. This leads to potentially spurious correlations.”

The community will build on existing expertise in the Indian Ocean climate system using available data on infectious diseases from countries in the region, as well as existing links between Princeton researchers and institutions across the region.

The group will soon incorporate graduate and undergraduate fellows. The research community also plans to develop interdisciplinary lectures and precepts in existing undergraduate courses on climate change and infectious disease, as well as new focused technical courses, such as a course on Python programming in environmental science. Such curricular activities will take advantage of the group’s research, as well as the topic’s potential for service and civic engagement.

“The role of environmental variables and climatic conditions in shaping human health has been recognized for centuries,” Metcalf said. “Shifts in climate — the average state of the atmosphere-ocean-land system over time, as well as the day-to-day variability of weather —will affect the burden of infectious diseases now and in the future.” – P.M.