This thought crossed my mind more than once during science journalist Sonia Shah’s keynote address, which both inspired and shocked the room full of society leaders at the Wiley Society Executive Seminar, which took place last month in Washington, DC. Shah’s address discussed the themes of her most recent book, Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, and elaborated on the medical, environmental, social, and even economic forces that explain how and why regular microbes and familiar pathogens can suddenly become pandemics.
In keeping with the theme of the seminar, “Reaching Across Research Boundaries to Solve Global Challenges,” Shah described the inevitability of another pandemic, while also challenging those in the room to consider how we can collaborate to combat such devastation. After all, Shah posited, pandemics are not solely a biological, environmental, social, economic, ethical, or political issue, but rather all of these combined. Preventing them will take leading scientists and researchers from every discipline working together to find vaccines, minimize the spread of pathogens, develop better infrastructures for applying aid, and more.
During her talk, Shah outlined some of the interrelated factors that have contributed to the past seven cholera pandemics in recorded history, which have claimed the lives of more than 40 million people around the world. Research on these factors comes from all corners of the academic spectrum, from history and ethics through biomedicine and ecology:
- Human invasion of wild habitats: The bacterium that causes cholera thrives in water, so when habitats such as wetlands are invaded, humans and pathogens
start to interact.
- New modes of transportation: A trip across the ocean that once took eight weeks can now be done in hours, which leads to the more rapid dissemination of pathogens.
- Rapid urbanization: As human migration travels from rural areas to industrial cities, overcrowding leads to the easier transmission of pathogens.
- Sanitary crisis: A corollary to urbanization, overburdened and outdated waste disposal systems result in sewage mixing with the drinking water supply.
- The rise of private interests: In the face of actions that could have contained outbreaks, such as quarantines, companies advocated to keep transit open so as
not to disrupt trade.
- Outdated medical theories: Because the prevailing theory of the time was that pathogens were airborne instead of waterborne, efforts to clean the air resulted
in more waste in the water system.
As Shah created this thought-provoking picture, she pointed out that it’s not a matter of whether another pandemic will hit, but rather which one. Murmurs of unease spread through the room. Yet as attendees absorbed this fact, many acknowledged the challenges inherent in working across geographic, institutional, and disciplinary boundaries, while expressing determination to do just that in the same breath.
During the question-and-answer session that followed, the challenges of interdisciplinary efforts were brought to the forefront. Muhammad Zaman, a professor in biomedical engineering at Boston University and Seminar presenter, pointed out that one challenge to successful interdisciplinary collaboration is the lack of integration between academic departments. He stated that in order to create the space for multidisciplinary research post-graduation, there must be a way to incentivize such work in university classrooms. Another attendee noted the need for collaboration when asking, “Why do institutions teach scientific approach to epidemics and ignore the role of history and social sciences?”—a fundamental query that left nearly all heads nodding in agreement.
The atmosphere in the room after Shah’s address was energized and resolute (although many, like me, hastily reached for hand sanitizer afterward). Sitting in the audience, among the leaders of dozens of societies which represent tens of thousands of researchers around the world, there was a certain confidence that the tools and knowledge to make progress on global issues like pandemics are within our collective reach. By emphasizing the need to collaborate, and to work together on a global scale, Shah’s talk could not have been more fitting to set the stage for a day filled with presentations featuring examples of how to reach across the boundaries of the university or discipline to focus on society at large.
How do you think researchers can better work together across disciplines? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or tweet us @WileyExchanges.
Sonia Shah is a science journalist and the prize-winning author of Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, as well as The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years, The Body Hunters: Testing New Drugs on the World’s Poorest Patients, and Crude: The Story of Oil.
Image: Carnegie Institution of Washington. Photo credit: Alexandra Smith