SCHUYLKILL HAVEN, Pa. — On Oct. 17, Penn State Schuylkill hosted the next event in its Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, “Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World" DIY pop-up exhibit presentation series: "Novel Control Measures to Combat Infectious Diseases," a panel discussion.
The campus hosted three distinguished speakers who presented information regarding their various fields of study and generated discussion among attendees.
The evening’s panelists included Nancy Troyano, entomologist and director of technical education and training, Rentokil North America; Tom Wylonis, board chairman and coach to top management at Evaxion Biotech, a bioinformatics and vaccine company; and Matthew Ferrari, associate professor of biology at Penn State's Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics.
Dozens of students from Blue Mountain High School and Penn State Schuylkill filtered into the auditorium for the panel, with various community members and Schuylkill faculty and staff joining their ranks. Darcy Medica, interim chancellor of Penn State Schuylkill, gave a brief introduction at the event, which was co-sponsored by the Schuylkill County Immunization Coalition and the Schuylkill County Historical Society. Both organizations will be participating in future exhibit events.
Ferrari, who works with Doctors Without Borders, a partner of the World Health Organization, spoke first about his research focusing on the mathematics involved in quantifying how many people contract and spread infectious diseases. This research allows Doctors Without Borders to make evidence-based choices regarding allocation of scarce resources.
Near the beginning of his presentation, Ferrari explained that the majority of his studies in combating infectious diseases occurs in sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia. For people residing in these locations, nearly all measures to combat infectious diseases are novel ones, or novel implementation of time-tested measures. Instability in utilities infrastructure — water and electricity, for instance — compels healthcare workers to innovate, though “it’s hard to innovate in a crisis response,” Ferrari said. “Vaccines that require refrigeration do not work in areas of the world with unstable electricity.”
To overcome the challenges related to unstable utilities, poverty, government and more, Ferrari approaches outbreaks from a mathematical perspective. He explained that it is fundamentally unethical to conduct scientific experiments on populations experiencing an outbreak, so math helps fill in the gaps. Part of Ferrari’s mission is to determine if the actions he and other doctors take actually are effective. Researchers compare and contrast treated and untreated outbreaks that had no external intervention and use complex mathematical models to see what could have happened in an area where there had been external intervention.
Tom Wylonis, a Frackville, Pennsylvania, native and Penn State Schuylkill alumnus, spoke next about the work that he conducted at Evaxion Biotech. During his presentation, Wylonis said that “by 2050, superbug deaths will surpass cancer deaths if we don’t do something fundamentally different.”
In 2003, researchers completed sequencing the human genome; this research acted as the foundation for what Evaxion Biotech does today. This research coupled with technological advancements has allowed the Evaxion Biotech team to code pathogens in a matter of 48 hours. Evaxion Biotech then utilizes EDEN technology to identify potential protein antigens, bringing novel vaccines and antibodies to patients more rapidly than ever before.
“Our story is about entrepreneurship and innovation,” says Wylonis, “but our goal is saving lives.”
Nancy Troyano closed out the presentations with a fascinating perspective: one of vector management. Vectors are organisms that spread disease, such as fleas or, in Troyano’s case, mosquitoes. Vector management is a science-based approach to disease control that focuses on pest management, chemical control, larvicide applications, and communication. From Zika virus to malaria, these approaches to pest management are essential to public health.
Not all diseases are vector-based, but some locales are impacted more than others, and Troyano focused her presentation on novel vector control measures applied in Puerto Rico.
“Cultures are different,” she said. “For instance, Puerto Rico regularly deals with vector-based diseases" — such as Zika virus, dengue fever and chikungunya. Because Puerto Rico’s climate is predominantly classified as a tropical rainforest, mosquitoes, who breed in water and dry out easily, thrive there. But by removing breeding sites, applying pesticides and larvicides, and communicating with the community, Rentokil North America was able to manage Puerto Rico’s mosquito population.
The panelists closed out the evening with a question-and-answer session. A local high school science teacher asked the panelists what his students should be learning, and each offered a thoughtful takeaway.
“Get out in the world and see how people live,” said Ferrari. “Consider leading a life that is filled with learning,” said Wylonis. Troyano concluded by saying, “Keep an open mind. You never know when you’re going to be inspired.”
"Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World" will be on display on the main floor of the Ciletti Memorial Library, Penn State Schuylkill, through Dec. 21. The exhibit is open to the public during library hours and guided tours are available. For more information on the exhibit and how to schedule a tour, as well as a schedule of upcoming Outbreak events, visit schuylkill.psu.edu/outbreak.