From his office at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Brad Greening, 29, is using every research tool at his disposal to stay one step ahead of the rampaging Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
Greening, a former DHS Career Development graduate fellow with CCICADA, is working with a CDC team that employs sophisticated mathematical models to predict where the outbreak will spread next and how many people it will affect. CDC officials and Ebola responders eagerly consume this data. It tells them, for example, how many beds and lab tests will be needed—and where and when—to arrest history’s worst Ebola outbreak.
As of mid-November, 2014, more than 14,000 cases had been reported in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, resulting in over 5,000 deaths.
“There’s so much that needs to be done. People really want to understand any predictive information…that can help them make sense of the mess of (field) data that is available,” Greening said in a telephone interview from his office at CDC headquarters.
Greening is a prime example of the new generation of homeland-security professionals whose careers have been launched by CCICADA, a DHS University Center of Excellence, which uses advanced data research and analysis to assist the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and related agencies in protecting the American people from natural and man-made threats.
Greening was selected by the CDC as one of 10 recent PhDs to receive a Steven M. Teutsch Prevention Effectiveness Fellowship. This competitive, two-year postdoctoral research fellowship focuses on the application of quantitative methods to the science of health protection, health promotion and disease prevention. He began his work in August, 2014.
The Prevention Effectiveness (PE) Fellowship is the largest postdoctoral training program in the quantitative, health-decision sciences in the US, with 23 current fellows and more than 120 program graduates since 1995. Its goal is to create a cadre of quantitative policy analysts that can help health-policy decision makers make the best use of available resources to protect the public’s health.
Greening was hired by the CDC to work in its Health Economics and Modeling Unit on a variety of infectious diseases, but Ebola has become his full-time job. “We take field data (from West Africa) and fit it into an Ebola response modeling tool,” he says. “Right now, our day-to-day activity is consumed with updating predictions already made.”
Greening started his current career path when he came to Rutgers University in 2008 as a participant in the DIMACS Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. At that time, his main interests were in computer science theory and related mathematics. His REU project with Professor Nina Fefferman combined these interests with a public health application: examining how the relative durations of social interactions and disease processes interact to shape epidemics.
Inspired by the potential to apply computational and mathematical modeling to practical problems such as those in public health, Greening decided to do his graduate work in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources with Fefferman as his advisor (despite having taken no undergraduate courses in biology).
This led Greening to a 3-year graduate fellowship at Rutgers University at the CCICADA Center, where Fefferman is a major player.
The fellowship was funded by a DHS Career Development Grant to CCICADA, which is designed to introduce students to mathematical and computational applications in homeland security, including those in public health.
The DHS Career Development Grant internship requirement led Greening to a summer internship with the CDC, where he worked with Professor Fefferman and CDC’s Dr. Michael Washington (shown with Greening at left) developing models to help plan for response during heat-related emergencies in cities. The ultimate goal of Greening’s project was to develop optimization strategies to determine: 1) where to open temporary facilities for medical care in a city experiencing a heat emergency; and 2) how to assign individuals to those centers for treatment in order to minimize potential loss of life.
His graduate and doctoral work at Rutgers and CCICADA helped position Greening to be a strong candidate for his current PE Fellowship with the CDC.
As a PE Fellow, Greening joins the CDC’s Health Economics and Modeling Unit (HEMU), which is part of the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, Division of Preparedness and Emerging Infections (DPEI). DPEI works to build and strengthen public health capacity by enhancing the ability of CDC and its public health partners to prepare for and respond to infectious diseases, including outbreaks, bioterrorism, and other public health emergencies. HEMU has led efforts in modeling cholera, anthrax, dengue, influenza, West Nile Virus and other emerging pathogens, including Ebola.
Greening’s PE fellowship supervisor and mentor is distinguished health economist Dr. Martin Meltzer, whose comments on Ebola modeling efforts recently appeared in Science magazine. Projects Greening will work on during his fellowship include: Ebola modeling; developing mathematical models of the typhoid vaccine; supplemental vs. routing vaccines for such diseases as measles and polio in developing countries; and updating and enhancing mathematical models of public health laboratory capacity under a range of scenarios.