Episode 1: A public health approach to overcoming the pandemic

Science talks podcast graphic - Dr. Kristen Pogreba-Brown
BIO5 COVID-19 seed grant awardee Dr. Kristen Pogreba Brown talks about her CoVHORT study.
Brittany Uhlorn, BIO5 Institute

Soon after the pandemic started, more than half a million dollars was rapidly reallocated to supply 13 interdisciplinary teams with immediate funding to pursue basic science, technology, clinical or population-based research projects that directly address COVID-19.

In this episode, Brooke Moreno and Sean Cadin talk with BIO5 Institute COVID-19 seed grant awardee Dr. Kristen Pogreba Brown, BIO5 member and assistant professor in the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, about her CoVHORT study.

Join CoVHORT: https://covhort.arizona.edu/ 


How did having a background in epidemiology and biostatistics help you quickly pivot towards COVID-19 focused research?

I’m an infectious disease epidemiologist by training, and most of my focus is on foodborne diseases. When I was working on my dissertation, I was focused on outbreak investigation and response. I’ve worked before on helping to write pandemic response plans, so I really couldn’t avoid working on COVID-19!

My heart is in infectious disease and outbreak investigation, and I've worked with the county and state health departments for about 15 years in that capacity. I've been building up my whole life for this, but that being said, it is different. Everything about COVID is different than what we all expected. Some of the plans we spent a lot of time writing didn't include a lot of the things that we're seeing today. 

From a research perspective, we already were working in infectious disease research trying to figure out how people get sick and what the repercussions are. With epidemiology, the science of public health, it's very method based, so you can easily switch from one disease to another because the methods in investigating those diseases are often the same. 

The title of your rapid seed grant project is, “Infrastructure for population-based COVID-19 surveillance.” Tell us a bit about the project and the resources you’re employing to accomplish your goals.

SAFER is a student outbreak response team program that I started about 15 years ago with the College of Public Health. It's one of very few programs across the country that has been recognized by CDC. We’ve been doing different projects with the county and the state health department - most of which is foodborne related diseases because that's really what most of the outbreaks around the state ended up being. 

When all of this started hitting in March, we teamed up with the Pima County Health Department. We've worked on H1N1 and measles outbreaks, so we had a good infrastructure to be able to have students come in quickly, get trained on how to do case investigations, and then be able to do contact tracing for COVID-19. 

Early on we started hearing stories about people in other countries who just weren't recovering very quickly. They were having long-term impacts. The infectious disease epidemiologist in our department and the chronic disease epidemiologist who normally don't get to work together very often paired up. We knew we could create a study to look at both the acute and the long-term impacts of COVID.

The study we got pilot funding from BIO5 to do was to conduct interviews with patients and learn about acute symptoms and chronic problems, as well as where they have been - the routine public health questionnaire. We also ask if they're interested in participating in a research study related to COVID, where we ask some of the same questions related to symptoms, and then we’ll do two years of follow-ups with these people. 

We wanted to go even bigger and create not just a study of the people who've been infected, but also a much bigger population database. That way, we could recruit not just the people who've been sick, but also people who haven't been sick to have some comparisons. Once we got the funding from BIO5, we started doing additional recruitment outside of just those initial case investigations. 

Any Arizona resident can enroll in the study, whether you’ve been sick or not, at cohort.arizona.edu. We're also linked up to other studies like the Arizona antibody study. We also work with ASU, so we're really trying to build as much of a statewide collaborative as we can.

Our goal is to get to 10,000 participants, and right now we're almost at 2,400, largely due to the pilot funding that we were able to get from BIO5 to get recruitment off the ground so fast. 

It sounds like collaboration is at the core of your work. What are some of your keys to finding collaborators?

It’s all about to communication. You’ve got to let others know what you're doing and how you're doing it and be open to new collaborations that you didn't necessarily anticipate by paying attention to what other people are working on. You just have to think a little bit more outside of the box about how others could be involved.

Also know that it doesn't hurt to ask. A lot of times you'd be pleasantly surprised with what people are willing and able to bring to the table when they see the value added for themselves and for their work. 

As far as collaborations go, having a common goal has been helpful, and at this point, it's about improving public health. The one good thing that's come out of 2020 has been the number of collaborations that we have been able to build because everyone is focused on public health, especially COVID-19. 

In 2021, BIO5 is going to be celebrating its 20th anniversary as a hub for research. What does BIO5 mean to you?

BIO5 focuses on team science. I truly believe that we are not going to be able to solve a lot of the bigger problems that face us as a society if we stay in our silos. The only way that we're going to be able to address these bigger problems is through team science. Having an institution whose sole purpose is focused on collaboration, bringing scientists together, bringing people and physically in the same space, virtually together in other ways, is critical going forward.

About the University of Arizona BIO5 Institute
The BIO5 Institute at the University of Arizona connects and mobilizes top researchers in agriculture, engineering, medicine, pharmacy, data and computational science, and basic science to find creative solutions to humanity’s most pressing health and environmental challenges. Since 2001, this interdisciplinary approach has been an international model of how to conduct collaborative research, and has resulted in disease prevention strategies, innovative diagnostics and devices, promising new therapies, and improved food sustainability. Learn more at BIO5.ORG.

LAND ACKNOWLEDGEMENT We respectfully acknowledge the University of Arizona is on the land and territories of Indigenous peoples. Today, Arizona is home to 22 federally recognized tribes, with Tucson being home to the O’odham and the Yaqui. Committed to diversity and inclusion, the University strives to build sustainable relationships with sovereign Native Nations and Indigenous communities through education offerings, partnerships, and community service.