A transdisciplinary team of scientists at Virginia Tech was awarded a $1.75 million, five-year National Institutes of Health grant to plan better communicable disease strategies using a systems science approach that combines social behavior with mathematical modeling.

Have you ever shown up to work sick? Doing so may end up costing employers more money. Workers feeling under the weather are less productive and put their coworkers at risk of getting sick. Research is now underway to identify why employees are going to work sick and other related behaviors, in order to design better infectious disease prevention and control strategies.

Achla Marathe, a professor of agricultural and applied economics at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute and Virginia Tech, has received a $1.75 million, five-year research grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health to incorporate social behavior into mathematical models of infectious disease transmission dynamics, with a focus on influenza-type illnesses.

Marathe will share principal investigator duties with Kaja Abbas, an assistant professor of population health sciences in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Marathe’s experience in modeling and simulation of social behavior will complement Abbas’ expertise in evaluating public health interventions.

“We are very excited to have a truly transdisciplinary team which brings together researchers with complementary expertise in health policy, computational and mathematical epidemiology, socio-behavioral economics and systems science,” said Abbas.

The researchers will incorporate social behavior into infectious disease models, thereby bridging the gap between quantitative modeling and public health practice. They will conduct surveys to identify specific behaviors affecting infection rates and intervention effectiveness. Some of those behaviors might include the likelihood a person will receive a flu shot and whether the vaccine is administered during the peak of flu season, or at another time.

Survey results will then be integrated into detailed mathematical models, the disease will be simulated, and the factors most responsible for the control or spread of disease will be identified.

“The innovative part of the project lies in understanding how individual behavior, disease dynamics and interventions interrelate across multiple scales, through an internal feedback process,” explained Marathe. “Understanding this process through detailed simulations will help us recognize measurable, significant differences in current public health practices.” 

Using a systems science approach provides a novel perspective that can lead to more effective public health interventions. The team will determine the limitations in existing plans and design new combinations of interventions that improve health disparities across communities.

“We can go beyond whether paid sick leave is an effective intervention to contain an influenza epidemic, and ask whether it makes a difference if sick leave includes taking care of sick family members,” said Marathe.

Additional members of the Virginia Tech research team include Jiangzhuo Chen, Stephen Eubank, Bryan Lewis and Samarth Swarup of the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute; Kevin Boyle, Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics; Pam Murray-Tuite, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; and Hazhir Rahmandad, Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.

Written by Maureen Lawrence-Kuether and Sherrie R. Whaley


The Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine is a leading biomedical teaching and research center, enrolling more than 700 Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, master of public health, and biomedical and veterinary sciences graduate students. The college is a partnership between the land-grant universities of Virginia Tech and the University of Maryland. Its main campus in Blacksburg, Virginia, features the Veterinary Teaching Hospital and large animal field services which together treat more than 79,000 animals annually. Other locations include the Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center in Leesburg, Virginia, and the Gudelsky Veterinary Center in College Park, Maryland.

A university-level Research Institute of Virginia Tech, the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute was established in 2000 with an emphasis on informatics of complex interacting systems scaling the microbiome to the entire globe. It helps solve challenges posed to human health, security, and sustainability. Headquartered at the Blacksburg campus, the institute occupies 154,600 square feet in research facilities, including state-of-the-art core laboratory and high-performance computing facilities, as well as research offices in the Virginia Tech Research Center in Arlington, Virginia.


This press release appears in the VT News as Why do we go to work when we're sick? Virginia Tech researchers to examine public health issues.

November 05, 2014