As an epidemiologist, Nadia Abuelezam is accustomed to working with data sets and modeling programs, not reporters and news anchors. In a span of several months, she’s had to learn to do both.
The coronavirus pandemic has thrust experts like Abuelezam, whose work studying the patterns and causes of diseases generally takes place behind the scenes, into an unusual spotlight. Now, in addition to her role as an assistant professor in the Connell School of Nursing at Boston College, Abuelezam is using her training to inform a frightened American public.
“Things have changed dramatically,” she said. “I see my role right now as a translator of information, making sure the work that I do can help people in some real tangible way.”
In media interviews and on Twitter, Abuelezam has been asked to explain why the virus is spreading so quickly, how low-income and minority communities have been affected, and whether X number of activities are safe or potentially deadly. Should the NBA consider resuming its season? How should transitions back to “normal” activity be handled? And most importantly: When will this all be over?
As Abuelezam has quickly learned, there is no such thing as an easy answer.
“You want to tell people the truth, but you also don't want them to panic,” she said. “I’m constantly thinking about how I can relay information in a way that's not frightening, but that educates people to allow them to make the best decision for their health. It’s a scary responsibility.”
Abuelezam became an epidemiologist because she wanted to help others. A math and science major at Harvey Mudd College, she was introduced to the field by UCLA professor and biomathematician Sally Blower, who delivered a guest lecture on using mathematical modeling to track the spread of HIV in South Africa. Abuelezam was intrigued.
“I really wasn't enjoying the theoretical side of my major because I didn't see the point of doing math for the sake of doing math,” she said. “After this talk I realized I can actually use my skills to affect health through epidemiology.”
Following her junior year, Abuelezam spent a summer in Uganda working with The AIDS Support Organization, which delivers services to individuals living with HIV. The experience solidified her decision to pursue a career in public health.
“I began to understand how one disease, HIV in this case, could transform an entire population, and really an entire society,” she said. “That’s how my passion was ignited.”
Abuelezam went on to earn a doctorate in infectious disease epidemiology from the Harvard School of Public Health, and joined the Connell School faculty in 2016. Until recently, her research involved diseases that no longer pose a widespread threat to most Americans—HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria.
The coronavirus changed everything, Abuelezam said.
“This is happening here, it's happening now, it's happening to me, it's happening to family, friends, and students,” she said. “It gives a whole new meaning to what I studied, it feels more real now.”
Since the outbreak began, Abuelezam has strictly adhered to the safety measures she touts in interviews: lots of hand washing, sanitizing surfaces, and staying home as much as possible. She’s called on local government to translate important health information for non-English speaking residents, and encouraged community members to support vulnerable citizens while staying safe themselves.
Even those who are not public health professionals have a role to play, she said.
“I think it's really important to remember that each of us has an ability to influence those around us,” she said. “That might mean reaching out and calling people and informing them about why that email chain was incorrect or how they can protect themselves. I hope that each of us takes on that responsibility as men and women for others.”
Alix Hackett | University Communications | April 2020