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Science background helped student journalist’s reporting on predicting infectious disease outbreaks Date: 05/13/19

Prajalta Dhapte

By Bara Vaida

Big data offers the promise that researchers can develop effective predictive models of infectious disease outbreaks, enabling public health leaders to better allocate resources to prevent and respond to outbreaks. Scientist and journalism student Prajakta Dhapte became fascinated with this predictive process and decided to delve into the modeling arena for a story published in Georgia Health News: “Predicting Pandemics: It’s Not Easy But Researchers Are Trying.”

Q. What got you interested specifically in writing about infectious disease modeling and why did you pursue this specific story?

A. Viruses are highly elusive in nature and you never know when or where the recipe for the perfect pandemic is brewing. Viruses are way ahead of their time and this really fascinates me; their ability to evolve is incredible. Therefore, I'm curious to know if we still stand a chance against them and maybe even avert the danger of an outbreak.

I decided to pursue this specific story to understand if mathematical models are a reliable method to predict infectious disease outbreaks and if any progress has been made in this area. There has been some considerable debate on whether studies such as these should be funded and if real-time surveillance methods should get more financial attention instead. My story, therefore, tries to understand the importance of both mathematical models as well as real-time outbreak forecasting methods.

Q. What are the challenges behind doing this story? How did you overcome them?

A. There were a quite a few challenges that I faced while pursuing this story. Some of them were really understanding the concept and basics of infectious disease modeling. While some prior knowledge and background in virology really helped me overcome those, the scientists and researchers cited in this story also helped me understand concepts that were difficult to grasp. Then came the challenge of simplifying the language and presenting the concept in layman’s terms, for which my professor helped me to a great extent. I would say having different people read your story and having them make sense of it in the same way as the other person, is really a good indicator that your story is ready for a larger audience.

Q. What recommendations in terms of resources that you would have for journalists who are interested in infectious disease outbreak modeling?

A. There are plenty of resources available online through a Google search. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a website called the Epidemic Prediction Initiative. The National Institutes of Health’s ongoing prediction efforts, called the Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study (MIDAS), are listed on the National Institute of General Medical Sciences website. Finally, the best way to find information on the latest research and progress in the field is via subscriptions to embargoed studies from different infectious disease research and medical journals. Some of the most useful journals for my work include The Journal of Infectious Diseases and The Journal of Infectious Diseases on JSTOR [a digital library for scholars and researchers].

Q. What more can you tell us about what outbreak modeling means for pandemic preparedness?

A. After talking to several experts both in the field of infectious disease research and risk communication, it is clear that sole reliance on mathematical models to guide decisions for pandemic preparedness is not a good option. While mathematical models are important they serve a very rudimentary role in pandemic forecasting and preparedness. Real-time surveillance and monitoring of infectious disease cases is still a highly relied-upon method in the prevention of infectious disease outbreaks. Furthermore, problems such as climate change are driving infectious diseases to entirely new locations, which makes the idea of infectious disease forecasting even more complicated.

Q. What made you want to become a journalist after getting graduate degrees in science?

A. For me, my biggest inspiration for becoming a science journalist came from my love for writing and science. Degrees in science always offer very traditional career options such as research and the industry and I wanted to pursue a career beyond that. Coming from India, I noticed that we have a considerable lack of science journalists and communicators in the country and this also became one of the reasons why I decided to pursue journalism.

Q. Why would someone consider going to graduate school in journalism?

A. One should consider going to graduate school because there is so much to learn about journalism — both theoretical and practical knowledge. It is a unique setup that allows you to practice journalism while still learning the trade. Graduate school is also a crucial starting point for people that do not come from a journalism background, like me. It teaches you the dos and don’ts of journalism, which are extremely useful when navigating the field. As students, you also get to attend journalism workshops and conferences that help build connections in the media industry and academia.

Q. What it’s like to be a student journalist?

A. Being a student journalist is challenging and at the same time an excellent learning experience. Since you’re in the process of learning and are allowed to make mistakes school is a safe space for student journalists to learn and grow. In terms of challenges, the risk of not being taken seriously, accessibility to certain sources and data could be some hurdles that hinder our reporting abilities. But challenges are inherent to any professional path and they offer a chance to learn and improvise. In totality, to me, it is a fascinating field and most importantly a privilege since not many people get the opportunity to have their voices heard.

Q. What stories are you working on now?

A. I’ve been working on a local investigative story that is focused on rising opioid cases and if they are directly linked to an increase in marketing of prescription opioids specifically in Athens, Georgia.

Prajakta Dhapte is a health and medical journalism student at the University of Georgia. She also holds a master’s degree in virology from the National Institute of Virology in India. With a background in infectious disease, her interest as a journalist lies mainly in the intersection of infectious disease and public health.