Multidisciplinary scientist analyzes and forecasts mosquito-borne disease outbreaks in America Meet Julie Spencer

Millions of people suffer the pain of disease across the globe every day, and tackling this misfortune is no simple task. But one biologist, Julie Spencer, has dedicated her career to offering the global community some relief.

Multidisciplinary scientist analyzes and forecasts mosquito-borne disease outbreaks in America

Julie Spencer and her colleagues are fine-tuning ways to predict the spread of disease by forecasting the movement of disease vectors. (Photo credit: Douglas C. Potter)

Long before Spencer became a multidisciplinary scientist, she was a ten-year-old playing with the chemistry set her father gave her. Her father told her she could do anything she set her mind to do, so Spencer graduated from St. John’s College with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and mathematics. With an aim toward teaching Greek and Latin, Spencer earned a postgraduate certificate in classics with distinction from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.

However, after reading “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” Tracy Kidder’s chronicle of Paul Farmer’s ground-breaking medical innovations, she shifted her interest to biological studies. That interest quickly snowballed. She became immersed in molecular biology and genetics, and came out of the University of New Mexico with her masters in biology.

While studying for her doctoral degree, Spencer took an interest in bacterial evolution, public health and the drug-resistance of diseases such as tuberculosis. She realized math could be a powerful tool for modeling and informing public health disease interventions while taking an applied calculus class. Then, she received her doctoral degree in biology from the University of New Mexico, with a dissertation on genomics and epidemiology of respiratory diseases.

During her doctoral studies, Spencer learned about the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education’s (ORISE) Intelligence Community Postdoctoral Research Fellowship (IC Postdoc Program), offering scientists and engineers from a wide variety of disciplines unique opportunities to conduct research relevant to the Intelligence Community.

Spencer applied, and after graduation, immediately signed on as a fellow. Under the guidance of her mentors, Anthony Nguy-Robertson, Erik Scully, and Carrie Manore, she began researching disease forecasting with the Information Systems and Modeling Group (A-1), in the Analytics, Intelligence, and Technology (A-Division) at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). She also collaborates with the Climate Integrated Model of Mosquito-borne Infectious Diseases Team.

“Mosquito-borne diseases carry a massive worldwide cost in human suffering and loss of productivity,” said Spencer. “Dengue, in particular, infects an estimated 390 million people each year, creating huge disease burden. The primary carrier is Aedes aegypti, the range of which has recently expanded and extends to the southern U.S.”

Her research involves gathering and analyzing data to quickly forecast areas that may be vulnerable to dengue outbreaks transmitted by mosquitos. Her team started in Brazil and eventually moved to assessing the potential for outbreaks in the southern U.S. Gathering such data quickly became a challenge.

“The forecasts did not perform well at first,” Spencer said.

Vegetation cover, temperature, and the presence of water provided Spencer and her team with clues about where and when the mosquitoes transmitting disease might be active. However, the variables are challenging in predictive models because they have different impacts in difference places. For example, high in the mountains, temperature swings are good predictors of dengue case counts while vegetation is not as important, but in tropical regions this is the opposite.

“Thus, one strategy is to customize the set of predictors for each region,” she concluded. “Lauren Castro and her team recently published a fantastic paper in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases that demonstrates this point.”

They learned that the species of mosquito that transmitted dengue —A. aegypti—was most likely to cause outbreaks between 27 and 31 degrees Celsius, or 80 to 87 degrees Fahrenheit. They project that if the temperature were to rise by 3 degrees Celsius, outbreaks would increase in some areas while decreasing in others. In the U.S., the risk of hypothetical summer outbreaks of dengue in Los Angeles and Houston would increase, while in Phoenix it would begin to drop off.

Spencer said her team’s research will provide critical insight to what drives infectious diseases, and that it is only a small part of the larger disease risk assessment for national health.

Spencer prepared her team’s research for submission to several publications, and she has presented at ten conferences and seminars, including AmeriGEO Week, the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, the Battelle/DOE Innovations in Climate Resilience conference, the Banff International Research Station Pandemic Prevention Workshop and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics Annual Meeting. Other events have also added richness to Spencer’s time as a fellow, such as the LANL A-Division Power Skills Workshop Series.

Spencer plans to continue studying disease outbreaks at LANL, where she has been cleared to be hired. Her efforts are sure to make lasting contributions to the ongoing fight against disease in the United States.

“I think the IC Postdoc Fellowship is a great opportunity,” Spencer said. “In my experience, the ORISE/Department of Energy/Office of the Director of National Intelligence support for a research project at a national laboratory has provided unparalleled, multi-faceted professional development that has opened doors to further opportunities. I would enthusiastically recommend it to anyone just finishing a doctorate or as a second postdoctoral position.”

The Intelligence Community Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Program is funded by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and managed by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) under an agreement between the IC and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.

Hear from Julie on the Further Together Podcast!

Episode 97: ORISE Featurecast: Julie Spencer on using mathematics to end suffering from diseases

As part of our annual observance of National Postdoc Week, this episode of the ORISE Featurecast focuses on Julie Spencer, Ph.D., an Intelligence Community Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Program researcher, who uses mathematics to track and, in collaboration with other scientists, research how to end human suffering from communicable diseases. In this episode, Julie talks to host Michael Holtz about her ongoing work, how she developed an interest in science and math, the importance of collaboration for success in today's research environment, and the value of mentorship, both as a mentor and mentee in the development of her career. Join us for an interesting and, dare we say, fun conversation. Learn more about the ORISE IC Postdoctoral Research Fellowship here: https://orise.orau.gov/icpostdoc/.

Check out the videocast for Episode 97 Listen to Episode 97 Transcript for Episode 97