Alison P. Galvani, Ph.D., assistant professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, who at age 29 was one of the youngest-ever recipients of a Guggenheim Fellowship, combines psychological, economic and medical insights to generate mathematical models of disease transmission and control.
Galvani’s research on the epidemiology of infectious diseases has enjoyed the generous support of the late Miriam Burnett and that of her son Charles Burnett III, who have contributed more than $650,000 to support Galvani’s work. “The gifts from Miriam and Charles Burnett have been wonderful in facilitating my research,” says Galvani.
While growing up in San Francisco, Galvani was always keenly interested in math and science, and she encountered a book during high school that would change the course of her life.
After reading The Blind Watchmaker, the bestselling account of modern evolutionary biology by University of Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, D.PHIL., Galvani wrote a letter to Dawkins pointing out what she considered to be a minor inconsistency in his genetic mechanism of speciation. “He agreed and encouraged me to come to Oxford University” Galvani recalls.
After completing her undergraduate degree in biology at Oxford, concentrating on evolution and ecology, Galvani stayed on to earn her doctorate under the supervision of Lord Robert May, Ph.D., in the university’s very strong program in epidemiology, she says, “because I see epidemiology as the ecology of infectious disease, which I find fascinating.”
In her current work at the Yale School of Public Health, she incorporates game theory and the psychology of decision-making to create simulations that take crucial human factors—the likelihood of compliance with mandatory vaccination, the perception of risk, the role of social networks and more—into account, allowing her to easily compare the outcomes of various public health scenarios, a tool that government officials are finding increasingly valuable in designing public policy.
Funding received from Miriam and Charles Burnett has enabled Galvani to expand the scope of her studies and increase the range of collaborations nationally and internationally.
“Our research encompasses a wide variety of topics, including the intervention of influenza, tuberculosis, dengue fever and human papilloma virus,” says Galvani. “I have observed increasing interest by policymakers in this tool.”