The global COVID-19 crisis will require scientists and scholars who are educated and trained to take on the world’s most dangerous problems. The Biodefense program at the Schar School creates leaders in the field. Look for their stories on this page in coming days.
Nereyda Sevilla believes she has a way to change how authorities and the public respond to disease outbreaks, such as the coronavirus crisis, and especially those perceived to be transmitted by air travel.
If she’s right, it could potentially save billions of dollars in misdirected federal and state money and give millions of air passengers more precise information about infections.
Sevilla earned her PhD in 2017 from the Schar School’s Biodefense program after 10 years in the Air Force, retiring as a captain. She is now a civilian aerospace physiologist for the Defense Health Agency, working as acting director of the Military Health System Clinical Investigations Program. She was awarded the Air Force Medical Service Biomedical Specialist Civilian of the Year Award and the Air Force Meritorious Service Medal.
During her 10 years in the military, she studied the effects of flying on the human body, whether on a fighter jet or transport aircraft.
When she realized the Post-9/11 GI Bill would pay 100 percent of her tuition for a PhD at a state school, Sevilla came across the Biodefense program, “and I didn’t have to go any further,” she said. The accessibility and flexibility allowed her to continue her meaningful employment while allowing her to explore the intersection of science with policy.
Over eight years at the Schar School, Sevilla examined the role of air travel in the spread of diseases, specifically the threat of pneumonic plague as a natural outbreak or bioterrorist attack. While aircraft are indeed moving individuals across the globe acting as vectors and incubators of diseases, Sevilla pointed out that despite the numerous aircraft involved, no one became infected with Ebola on an airplane during the 2014 outbreak.
And yet authorities spent billions on entry and exit screenings, which heightened fear among the general population.
Sevilla used an open-source model to study what would happen during a possible future outbreak of pneumonic plague, an infectious lung disease that continues to rear its deadly head around the world. The model could be a game-changing tool, said her professor.
“The use of this tool allows Nereyda to go beyond lessons learned from previous outbreaks to proactively develop new public health approaches to containing outbreaks before they become global pandemics,” said Gregory Koblentz, director of the Schar School’s Biodefense program.
The open-source model Sevilla built her plague program on is called the Spatiotemporal Epidemiological Modeler—STEM, for short. The multi-disciplinary, collaborative platform can be downloaded to any computer for use by researchers to compare, refine, and validate scenarios anywhere in the world.
The bottom line for Sevilla? “I’m a huge proponent of communicating with and educating the public,” the Texas native said. “We can instill a better culture of travel preventive medicine practices, such as washing your hands in public places, and not just panic during a crisis.”
As for catching a cold in an airplane from another passenger?
“I’ve found the airplane is not what’s going to get you infected with disease,” she said. “You’re more likely to get sick from waiting in the boarding area next to someone with a cold.”