With its Researcher Spotlights, the Microbial Systems Initiative aims to introduce you to the breadth and diversity of research interests and potential growth opportunities at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus. We hope that by highlighting both the researchers and their research, we can help you to learn more about and connect with your colleagues to enhance multidisciplinary research and education in microbial sciences here at Illinois.
Alicia Kraay, PhD
College of Applied Health Sciences
Dr. Alicia Kraay is an assistant professor in the College of Applied Health Sciences, and an infectious disease epidemiologist. Dr. Kraay's research is focused on enteric pathogens and COVID-19, including the environmental transmission of infectious disease pathogens and the impact of public health interventions. Dr. Kraay is also interested in how infectious dynamics change over time in response to ongoing pathogen evolution. To study these questions, her work combines dynamic transmission modeling with conventional statistical techniques. In her researcher spotlight. Dr. Kraay discusses the impact of her research, especially related to the pandemic, and her aim to improve her community by addressing specific societal health challenges.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
When I first attended college at University of North Carolina, it was only a few years after the September 11th attack and tensions between the United States and the Middle East were at an all-time high. At the time, I planned to pursue a career in international relations and studied Arabic to help prepare me to work in this area. In my courses on international relations, however, I was struck by the fact that, in many of the conflict zones I had been hoping to help in, more people were dying of disease and malnutrition than any form of violence. Others around me had tried to discourage me from taking science courses at Carolina because they were notoriously difficult, but I found myself taking courses in genetics and chemistry for fun as a side project. That year, I decided to change my focus to public health.
How does being a part of the Illinois community support and enhance your research?
As a new hire, I am still learning about all the opportunities that Illinois has to offer but I have been consistently impressed since joining the faculty in January. Much of my research relies on high-intensity computing, and the Campus Computing Cluster is essential for completing my simulations. I also recently became affiliated with the Institute for Genomic Biology and am excited about the numerous opportunities available through that institute for expanding my research on the intersection between evolution and infectious disease transmission. The Illinois response to the pandemic was one of the most impressive in the nation and produced an incredible data resource through the Shield study, including frequent testing data and related surveys on health behaviors. Being a part of the campus community and being able to work with this data source is an amazing asset to my ongoing research interests and projects.
In addition to these specific research facilities and data sources, one of the greatest strengths of Illinois so far has been the generosity of its research community. Faculty from many different research departments have been eager to collaborate with me and to connect me with resources that might enhance my work and to help orient me to the university. The people at MSI have been particularly welcoming to me as a new faculty member and I look forward to developing collaborations with individual researchers through this initiative.
How will your research or work improve society or reach people?
The aim of my research is to help inform public health policy locally, nationally, and globally. My ongoing research partnerships with the WHO, CDC, and GAVI provide opportunities to share my research findings with policymakers. Much of my recent work has focused on developing vaccine policy recommendations for COVID-19 (both nationally and globally). Specifically, I have been developing recommendations on optimal vaccine schedule and predicting vaccine impact, including how the emergence of novel variants of concern and their ongoing evolution might change these results. I have also been focusing on how and when non-pharmaceutical interventions might be able to be safely relaxed as vaccine rollout progresses. As non-pharmaceutical interventions continue to relax, I am also assessing the impact on incidence of other diseases, including norovirus and rotavirus. I am also interested in the role of weather and climate change on disease incidence and in investigating how relaxing NPIs may interact with climate factors to influence seasonality of infectious diseases. I hope that this research can help assist in public health planning and preparedness for outbreaks of these future diseases.
While many of my research partnerships are with national and international public health organizations, as I begin my faculty position at Illinois, I am also excited about getting more integrated into the local community and in working with local public health agencies. I am working on setting up a research collaboration with SHIELD Illinois and CUPHD to study these questions at a local level and to study how health disparities within Champaign County and across the state have influenced disease transmission of COVID-19. I hope to share these findings with local communities and am still brainstorming the best ways to help achieve this goal in my new position at Illinois. In the past, I have helped to communicate my work to broad audiences through frequent interviews with reporters, guest speaking engagements in local rotary clubs, and by leading workshops in local schools. I hope to develop a similar network at UIUC so that I can continue to share my specific research as well as raise awareness of my field within the local community.
Recent news has pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism, and mental health as major societal health challenges. What part can researchers in your field play in addressing these challenges, in and out of the lab?
As an infectious disease epidemiologist, most of my work this past year has been redirected by the pandemic and in trying to aid in the public health response, so that is the clearest and most direct answer to this question. As incidence of COVID-19 declines, people in my field continue to contribute to the response by providing oversight on how vaccine policy and non-pharmaceutical interventions may need to be monitored in response to potential resurgences. The focus has also shifted to not just the direct burden of COVID-19 but the impact of health system disruption due to COVID-19 on other infectious diseases. My hope is that my research can help directly help mitigate these health consequences of the pandemic. When answering these questions, it is important to also focus on health disparities and how to reach marginalized populations that have disproportionately suffered the consequences of the pandemic.
Effectively communicating these findings to policymakers, reporters, and lay audiences is also critical. Part of this communication also must include honesty about what we don’t know and how this uncertainty might change things. Early in the pandemic, infectious disease epidemiologists were expected to have a crystal ball and predict with absolute certainty how the pandemic would unfold. While scientists in my field did the best they could to rise to this challenge, at times the questions that were still unanswered were not readily acknowledged. For example, when the initial pandemic wave was milder than scientists had originally predicted, epidemiologists were dismissed as doomsday prophets, when in actuality things were better than we initially expected because people and governments responded swiftly to help minimize pandemic impacts. Clearly communicating how and why things might unfold differently than our main predictions is important to maintain (and regain) public trust. Ultimately, it is this trust that can help improve the success of public health interventions.
While my specific research topics are part of the answer, conducting relevant research is by no means my only responsibility. As a research mentor and a teacher, many of the students I work with have been deeply impacted by the systematic racism and mental health challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has uncovered. To help address these challenges, teachers and principal investigators must strive to create an environment that is diverse, supportive, and sensitive to these challenges. At times, this may mean adjusting deadlines, providing additional support to complete assignments, or directing students to additional resources to help them cope with these challenges. It also means being intentional about the feedback I provide to students to acknowledge their success while also providing suggestions for how they can improve. I also actively encourage students in my lab to rest and recharge and model this philosophy myself by taking appropriate vacations and time away from work.
The pandemic has revealed many societal issues and I am sure that we will be dealing with the consequences for many years to come. I do not pretend to have all the answers, but I hope to continue to learn and work to help be part of the solution.
Do you want to tell us about any projects or activities you are particularly excited about right now?
I am particularly excited to become more integrated into the Illinois research community, including developing partnerships with local communities and public health agencies as I grow my research group.