Introducing Bio-security Mobility
As there wasn’t really a way to describe the type of research I’m doing, my colleagues and I have coined a new phrase,” explains Dr Lauren Gardner, whose multiple research interests have recently been drawn together into a fascinating new field.
“We’re calling it Bio-secure Mobility and it explores how people and things moving around our globalised world spread infectious disease. This includes the spread of naturally occurring viruses or malicious manmade biosecurity threats,” she says.
As a Senior Lecturer in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, a member of the Research Centre for Integrated Transport Innovation and a Research Fellow with the Faculty of Medicine, Gardner says her interests sit at the point where engineering and public health merge.
If we know how things are connected and how people move around, we can model how something might spread
Dr Lauren Gardner
“I use my background in network modelling, i.e. the connectivity of transport systems across all different modes and scales, to try to understand its implications in the public health space, specifically around epidemiology,” Gardner continues and goes on to explain that Bio-secure Mobility has three key research goals that span both understanding the spread of a particular outbreak and mitigating the risks it poses.
The first goal is gaining a clear understanding of how things spread through a network and might result in the creation of what Gardner calls a ‘diffusion model’. “If we know how things are connected and how people move around, we can model how something might spread. For example, we might look at how the flu would spread through Sydney’s population, or how the Zika virus spread from Brazil to the rest of the Americas,” she says. The second goal is about gaining a clear understanding of the different factors that contribute to the risk of spread. “What is pushing the disease through the network?” she continues. “Is it people moving or are there other more significant local factors at play, such as population density, land use characteristics, climate characteristics and infrastructure characteristics?”
The third piece of the puzzle, explains Gardner, is about control. “If we have answers to the above two goals then we can get smarter about allocating resources to try and stop spread.”
With a focus on the practical, Gardner says the outcomes of her research might include a series of tailorable methodologies or models that can be broadly applied and adapted for use in a real-time decision- making setting. “If there is a sudden outbreak of a new virus, we want to be able to provide public health policymakers with a tool so they can make smarter decisions about how to control and mitigate the risks of the outbreak.”
Ambitious in its scope, the questions raised by Bio-secure Mobility rely on multidisciplinary collaborations between engineers, biologists, entomologists and public health professionals in addition to requiring huge amounts of data. “Data is both our biggest challenge and our biggest opportunity and we need huge datasets that capture human mobility, real-time outbreak status, socioeconomic factors and environmental conditions,” Gardner says.
In our increasingly globalised world, where international travel has become so necessary and so prolific, Gardner’s research acknowledges this huge space where things like human mobility, climate change, and urban and rural land use changes can have grave and swift implications in terms of disease spread. It is a timely reminder of how susceptible our world is to these kinds of risks.