Blog Infectious Disease

The importance of interdisciplinary collaboration during COVID and beyond

by Arielle Smith, BA candidate in Psychological & Brain Sciences, Washington University in St. Louis, and participant in the 2021 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program- Public & Global Health Track

The Institute for Public Health is a shining example of interdisciplinary collaboration.
Photo: Nick Fewings, Unsplash

During the past two months, myself and the other Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program – Public and Global Health Track participants have been privileged to hear leaders in public and global health present their work. Going into the last seminar – “360° View of a Pandemic’s Impact: COVID-19 as Case Study” – I was not sure how it would tie everything together because we have learned so much from many different fields. But now, I see that is exactly the point.

To explain what I mean, I will start by giving an overview of the panel: First, we heard from Jacco Boon, PhD, associate professor of medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases, who discussed the scientific innovation that has gone into creating the new kinds of vaccines used for COVID and his lab’s work testing how these vaccines hold up against the variants. The next presentation by Jane O’Halloran, MD, PhD, assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases, expanded on the topic of COVID vaccines, discussing the public-private partnership that facilitated vaccine development in the U.S. along with how the ways data is presented impacts the public’s perception. Next, Rachel Orscheln, MD, associate professor of pediatrics explained that while children are less likely to be affected medically by COVID, they have been affected by the pandemic-related school closures, and the drawbacks of remote learning are equity issues differentially impacting the most vulnerable children.

Darrell Hudson, PhD, associate professor at the Brown School, highlighted inequities as well – emphasizing how many health outcomes, including COVID infections and deaths, are related more to zip codes than genetic codes. Then, Jessica Gold, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry, shared how mental health concerns have increased in the U.S. and globally during the pandemic, yet few countries have funding to address it, putting strain on an already broken mental health system. And last but not least, Nancy Morrow-Howell, PhD, the Betty Bofinger Brown Distinguished Professor of Social Policy and director of the Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging, drew our attention to the ways ageism has presented during COVID, and ended with lessons we can take from the pandemic to improve later life and combat ageism.

These presentations were very interesting as standalones, but even more powerful when thought about in conversation with each other. In doing so, I have identified some themes.

  1. Sometimes outstanding scientific innovations (i.e., COVID vaccines) have unintended consequences (i.e., vaccine hesitancy in part related to the speed of the trials). Improving science literacy and communication may be one way to address them.
  2. The pandemic has put a spotlight on existing inequities and vulnerabilities that have long been plaguing our broken health care systems and society at large. This moment should be a catalyst for change.
  3. Researchers and clinicians have been working hard during these tumultuous times to learn about the pandemic and its impacts from the biomedical to the social. Interdisciplinary collaboration is essential because these different fields each address an important piece of the puzzle.

I am thankful for the opportunity to learn and share these lessons that I will remember as I continue my journey as researcher. COVID is not going away anytime soon and there are unfortunately many more public and global health crises that need attention. It is my hope that moving forward, interdisciplinary collaboration will be the norm in addressing these crises.