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September 21, 2016

Our People: Adam Akullian

Adam Akullian is a postdoctoral researcher with the Institute for Disease Modeling (IDM). A National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship recipient, Adam is currently focused on mathematical and epidemiological modeling of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, with the goal of informing effective public health interventions. We met with Adam recently to discuss what brought him to IDM, his hopes for the future, and how collecting snails in China convinced him to pursue a Ph.D. in Epidemiology.

What are you currently working on at IDM?

I am closing in on my first year of work with the HIV team at IDM, having recently received my Ph.D. in Epidemiology from the University of Washington. My background is in infectious disease epidemiology and geo-spatial analysis. At IDM, I’m helping the team gather data from regions of sub-Saharan Africa with the highest HIV burden and incidence. We’re using a mathematical model developed by my colleagues at IDM to simulate the potential impact of different interventions on the HIV epidemic. For example, we might ask, would a behavioral invention (like promoting condom use) or a biomedical intervention (like expanding access to antiretroviral therapy or increasing uptake of Voluntary Medical Male Circumcision (VMMC)) prevent the most new infections? And, which groups should we target for these interventions?

How did you decide to pursue epidemiology?

I started out in the natural sciences at Brown University and got a job through UC Berkeley collecting snails in China. These tiny snails live in the ditches of rice farming villages in rural communities and transmit Schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease in humans that infects millions of people globally. It was a disease ecology project to understand how environmental change might expand the geographic habitat of the snail population and how that would drive disease spread in the region.

It was at that intersection of ecology, infectious disease, and geography that I really found a passion for public health and saw epidemiology as almost a natural fit for me. Once I completed my Ph.D., IDM was a great opportunity for me because it values multidisciplinary thinking.

What advice would you give someone who is considering a career in the sciences or specifically public health?

Being able to speak other people’s languages – both literally and in terms of the different scientific disciplines – is extremely important. It broadens your range of tools and makes you much more adaptive. Try and remember not to be intimidated by those already in the field and make a point to reach out to those who inspire you. In my experience, they’re usually pretty generous with their knowledge and excited to talk about their work.

What inspires you?

Traveling. One of the great things about my job is being able to travel to many different places. I spend much of my day doing quantitative analysis, so traveling allows me to meet the people we’re trying to help as well as connect with the local research community. Those interactions help me gain a more nuanced understanding of the context of my research. Being able to connect and share ideas with other people is really what inspires me.

What breakthrough do you hope to see during your lifetime?

We still don’t completely understand why HIV spreads so rapidly in certain demographic groups. We’re on the cusp of understanding why, but we’re not quite there yet. Really understanding who is transmitting to whom is very difficult information to obtain for numerous reasons, and in many ways, it’s a bit of a black box for researchers. Now there are new scientific methods that we can use to genotype the DNA from viruses so we can piece together a much better understanding of the transmission network. I’m hopeful, that in my lifetime, we’ll see the end of AIDS.

What’s the most rewarding part about working at IDM?

It’s the academic freedom. Because we are not beholden to granting agencies there’s a lot more freedom to explore high risk, high reward areas of research. In the true sense of the word, IDM feels like a laboratory.