On your wavelength

Interactions: Vittoria Colizza

Vittoria Colizza is Research Director of the EPIcx lab at INSERM and Sorbonne Université.

What did you train in? What are you working on now?

My formal training is in theoretical physics, but already during my PhD my work was at the interface with biology. Since then, I’ve been working on the characterization, modelling and surveillance of infectious disease epidemics, moving progressively from theoretical approaches to increasingly applied research informing public health. If I have to use a single tag to describe my research it would be ‘Computational and digital epidemiology’, integrating statistical physics, mathematical epidemiology, computer science, statistics, medicine, public health, complex systems approaches, network science, data science, surveillance, numerical thinking and geographic information systems.

My research focuses on real epidemic outbreaks to gather context epidemic awareness and provide risk assessment analyses for preparedness, mitigation, and control. Applications range from human epidemics (e.g. 2009 H1N1 pandemic influenza, MERS-CoV epidemic, Ebola virus disease epidemic, childhood infections, antimicrobial resistance spread in hospital settings) to animal epidemics (e.g. bovine brucellosis, bovine tuberculosis, foot-and-mouth disease, rabies).

In 2011 I joined the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM), after several years spent in interdisciplinary departments/institutions (my only affiliation to a Physics Dept. was during my education at Sapienza University in Rome).

How do you introduce yourself (e.g. I am a physicist/biologist/…) ?

It depends on the audience.

In front of an epidemic/medicine/public health community I’d just state that I’m a modeler, as this is the key information they would need about my profile, e.g. to distinguish my expertise from the one of field epidemiologists, biostatisticians, public health professionals, MDs, and others. But a few exchanges about my approaches would often identify me as a ‘stranger’ and force me to reveal I’m a physicist by training. I tend not to state that upfront as it may induce an unneeded distance that is not beneficial for the interaction.

Talking to physicists, I would introduce myself as ‘originally a physicist’ to establish a common ground facilitating the communication, but I would specify that my work is fully framed in the context of infectious disease epidemics (and therefore, it’s not physics anymore – at least most of the times).

In all circumstances, I try to introduce myself in a way that could avoid misunderstandings, assumptions, cross-disciplinary suspicion, and would allow putting my audience more at ease to have a comfortable and fruitful dialogue.

What did you find most difficult when you first had contact with other disciplines?

Definitely a long list of painful aspects that all interdisciplinary scientists experience – lack of shared language/notation/methods/practices, huge investment of time, confusion, need for uninterrupted nurturing of the interdisciplinary dialogue, mutual suspicion. These aspects are more or less foreseeable before embarking in an interdisciplinary endeavor (though experiencing them directly is unforeseeably painful).

What caught me completely by surprise was realizing that the very same reason behind interdisciplinary research – mindset diversity bringing additional richness – was also its biggest obstacle. Mindsets are mainly rooted in the disciplines of training of each scientist, thus shaping their ability to frame and interpret concepts. While each offers a different perspective to a given problem, they all need to be reconciled and synthesized in something new to achieve the knowledge advancement that interdisciplinary research aims to produce. And reconciling different mindsets, under varying conditions of rigidity, may be extremely challenging.

And what did you find most helpful to familiarize yourself with new concepts and jargon?

For me there was no other shortcut than reading reading reading out-of-my-field papers and books, attending Schools to complete my training, and discussing infinite times and for infinite hours with experts from other fields. And clearly I learnt a lot through the collaborations, as I still do.

Tell us about your experience the first time you went to a conference outside the field you trained in.

It was a rollercoaster of highs and lows. On the low points there was definitely the intimidating feeling of being an outsider along with the depressing realization that the community didn’t feel any need for outsiders… Up to the moment I realized that my just-developed model was able to answer the questions left open by the keynote speaker – so after all, the community didn’t have all the solutions within the boundaries of its discipline. This was a very powerful impulse for a young post-doc starting interdisciplinary science.

What would be your advice to a PI leading an interdisciplinary group?

I don’t think there is a single recipe for success. But I learnt that there are many important skills –beyond scientific expertise –  that are crucial to a successful and effective interdisciplinary dialogue. Among them, respect for other disciplines, for other points of view, as well as tolerance for ambiguity. These are not taught in courses and should be fostered and practiced in the everyday lab life. The aim is for young researchers to learn how to establish comfortable, engaging and unassuming scientific interactions, lowering cross-disciplinary barriers and removing perceived hierarchies of discipline importance.

Is there any anecdote you would like to share?

Oh yes, I have so many! Are you coming to the Nature Reviews Physics event in London on Feb 26? 😉


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