Author: Irene Eckstrand

Headshot of Irene Eckstrand.

Before her retirement in December 2014, Irene was our expert on evolutionary biology and managed scientific programs to develop models of disease spread as well as models of scientific workforce dynamics.

Posts by Irene Eckstrand

Moving to a New Institution? Contact Us Well in Advance.


Each year, an average of 65 NIGMS-funded principal investigators move to new universities or other institutions. With everything else they need to do, they sometimes neglect to consider how the move will affect their grants, or they start the process too late. When they try to hire staff or purchase supplies in the new location, they may discover that grant funds are not available. Remember that your grant is made to an institution, so you will need to involve your current and your new institutions early on to make sure that your transition is smooth.

You also need to be in touch with NIGMS staff early, allowing enough time for us to review any move-related change that requires NIH approval and, if approved, process it. When you begin plans to change institutions, contact your NIGMS program director and grants management specialist to discuss the timing of your move, options for managing your grant through the transition and the possible impact of the transfer on your research. Some situations don’t require the transfer of your grant at all. NIGMS staff can help you find the right solution for your circumstances, including the management of consortium arrangements and the involvement of animals or human subjects.

If you do want to transfer a grant to a new organization, you should contact NIGMS staff well before the anticipated start date at the new institution. Both your former institution and your new one will need to submit information to us before the grant can be moved and you can draw funds. We recommend providing all required materials at least 3 months in advance of the move.

Here are some NIH resources on transferring grants:
PA-14-078 Change of Grantee Institution (Type 7 Parent)
NIH Grants Policy Statement, Section Change of Grantee Organization

Reflecting on 10 Years of Modeling Disease Spread

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The NIGMS Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study (MIDAS) is a collaborative network of about 100 scientists who use computational, statistical and mathematical models to understand infectious disease dynamics.

As we mark the program’s 10th anniversary, we invite you to join us for a symposium titled “Modeling for Science and Policy” on September 23 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. EDT at the Lipsett Auditorium on the NIH campus. You can also watch the symposium remotely (live or later) via the NIH Videocast Web site. The program will feature short talks by MIDAS researchers on modeling for scientific understanding, for health policy decision making and for preparedness planning. We’ll post more details about the symposium when they’re available.

We also welcome scientists to apply for grants to become part of the network. We just released funding opportunity announcements for MIDAS centers of excellence (U54), an information technology resource (U24) and research projects (U01).

Since its inception, MIDAS has pioneered the use of computational and mathematical models to prepare for, detect and respond to infectious disease threats. In addition to doing basic quantitative and computational biology, MIDAS works closely with local, state and federal public health agencies to facilitate the use of modeling in decision making.

Here are just a few examples of MIDAS activities:

  • Working with the Institute of Medicine and the National Association of County and City Health Officers, MIDAS held a workshop at the 2013 Public Health Preparedness Summit to demonstrate how modeling can be used by local public health officials to inform policy decisions.
  • The University of Pittsburgh center has developed a software program called FRED that uses high-performance computing to create virtual outbreaks and deliver the results to a smartphone. The approach could enable public health officials to employ modeling tools even when they aren’t at their computers.
  • The Harvard School of Public Health center is developing models for the emergence of drug resistance in influenza, tuberculosis and other diseases to study the implications for clinical decision making.
  • The University of Chicago project uses large-scale computational modeling to explore the dynamics of MRSA among incarcerated and other communities on the south side of Chicago.
  • The University of Washington project has examined the impact of vaccine policies and usage on halting the spread of cholera in Haiti.
  • The Virginia Bioinformatics Institute project is developing a computer activity to teach high school students how epidemiologists study outbreaks and use mathematics and computation to help make public health decisions about vaccine distribution and school closures, for example.
  • The MIDAS information technology resource has developed detailed virtual human populations for many countries, including the United States, Mexico, Thailand, China and Argentina. These populations allow investigators to simulate social networks, transmission dynamics and the impact of behavior and policies on disease spread.

The network’s models, software and other resources, including information about historical epidemics, are available through the MIDAS portal. If you’re interested in modeling and/or infectious diseases, I invite you to explore this site, and I welcome your questions.

CORRECTION: The symposium will take place in the Lister Hill Center Auditorium on the NIH campus.

New NIH Curriculum Supplement on Evolution and Medicine

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Cover image of the NIH Curriculum Supplement on Evolution and MedicineTo help students develop a rich understanding of evolution, NIH has just published a new high school curriculum supplement, Evolution and Medicine, that includes two weeks of lessons.

I particularly like the supplement because it shows through clear, scientifically-valid examples that evolutionary biology is fundamental to understanding health and disease. For instance, a unit on lactase persistence demonstrates how variation is distributed geographically and how it’s associated with the environment. There’s a unit on influenza that focuses on the evolutionary principles underlying vaccine development, and another that explains the evolutionary rationale for using model organisms.

The supplement was produced by the NIH Office of Science Education, but many of us at NIGMS were involved in developing and reviewing it. You can see an outline and order a copy for your own use or to share with others. A version of the supplement that you can review online and a downloadable teacher’s guide are coming soon. Descriptions of and links to other curriculum supplements are also available.

Apply for Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases Program

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The NIGMS program supporting research on the evolution of infectious diseases has merged with the ecology of infectious disease program that has been supported primarily by the National Science Foundation and NIH’s Fogarty International Center to create a new funding opportunity announcement.

Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases (EEID), also sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, recognizes that infectious disease systems offer a perfect model for studying how context (i.e., ecology) and change (i.e., evolution) interact as organisms adapt to each other. The intersection of ecology and evolution also is relevant to many real-world problems, such as finding new vaccines or understanding how pathogens emerge.

EEID research will advance broad, conceptual knowledge that reaches beyond specific systems and that may be useful for understanding public, agricultural or ecosystem health; natural resource use and wildlife management; and/or economic development.

NIGMS’ particular interest is in the integration of ecological and evolutionary dynamics to address, for example:

  • The role of social influences on the susceptibility of individuals or populations,
  • Interactions between pathogenic and nonpathogenic organisms and their mutual hosts,
  • The emergence of pathogens from nonpathogenic populations,
  • Host switching, and
  • The evolution and maintenance of drug resistance.

Applications should combine field and laboratory research with mathematical, statistical and computational modeling. We encourage proposals from collaborative teams with expertise from diverse disciplines. Applications are due by December 7 and will be submitted to and reviewed by NSF. NIGMS will consider funding those that score well and are within the Institute’s mission areas.

At the Interface of Evolution and Medicine


At last week’s Evolution and Medicine Symposium (link no longer available) at the Evolution 2011 meeting in Norman, Oklahoma, experts from around the country came together to discuss how evolutionary biology is influencing our understanding of human health and disease.

At the meeting, I talked about NIGMS’s commitment to funding research on the principles and dynamics of evolution and highlighted the importance of studying biological systems, such as infectious diseases and physiology, in their evolutionary context.

In preparing my remarks, I realized that the work of clinicians and evolutionary biologists could be highly synergistic. M.D.s know a great deal about individual variation and clinical presentation, while evolutionary biologists have a good grasp of variation at the population level. Both of these perspectives are very valuable to the field of personalized medicine, for example. The question now is: How do we create an opportunity for these two groups to work with each other?

The meeting featured many interesting talks, including:

  • Dyann Wirth of the Harvard School of Public Health explained that in the very near future we will have enough sequence data from Plasmodium, mosquitoes and humans to understand regional variation as well as co-evolution of the malaria pathogen and its hosts. We should be able to use this information to build computational models and evaluate intervention, eradication and elimination strategies. Wirth said these capabilities stem from advances in DNA sequencing technologies that are having a revolutionary effect on evolution research, including evolution and medicine.
  • Carl Bergstrom of the University of Washington spoke on the integration of mathematical modeling and evolution. He gave a real example of how to use antiviral drugs most effectively in an influenza outbreak. The question was how to deploy antivirals to reduce the likelihood of resistance and minimize illness and death. Bergstrom said that the answer is non-obvious unless you understand how phylogenies work and know a little bit of math.
  • Angela Hancock of the University of Chicago talked about recent data showing that human genetic variation that’s adaptive in one context will not be so in other contexts. Studying 61 populations from different parts of the world, she identified signals of selection in a variety of genes related to UV radiation, infection and immunity, and cancer.

This symposium came at the perfect time to describe two new NIGMS-related efforts. We previewed an NIH high school curriculum supplement on evolution and medicine that will be released this fall. Also, in conjunction with the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we will be announcing later this summer a call for applications to study dynamic biological systems in their ecological and evolutionary contexts. I’ll share more details about these efforts in the near future.

Happy Fifth Birthday, MIDAS


Five years ago this summer, MIDAS, the Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study, was born. When we began, we knew the effort to develop computational models of disease spread would play a role in preparing for new outbreaks—we just didn’t think it’d be so immediate. First with H5N1 fears and now with the H1N1 pandemic, our researchers have provided computational models to help decisionmakers from all levels of the government plan ways to control flu.

While modeling is just one of many tools used in making policy recommendations, it can help explore different scenarios and outcomes. In the case of flu, MIDAS scientists have used their models to help answer questions like:

  • Can you contain a pandemic locally?
  • What’s the best way to slow the spread of flu while we develop a vaccine?
  • What’s the impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions?
  • Should we distribute antivirals before an outbreak?

As we head into the next five years, we are adding two new centers and three research groups that are pretty exciting. They bring expertise in such areas as MRSA modeling, high-performance computing, statistics, social behavior and visualization tools for non-experts. We’re also going to put a lot more effort into understanding the ecology and evolution of disease, the impact of co-infections, and antibiotic and antiviral resistance.

The two new centers have an additional charge in education and outreach, particularly with public health officials from around the world. I am especially looking forward to this, since there’s such a great need for people with backgrounds in infectious disease epidemiology to also be able to do analytical and computational work.

The thoughtful, careful studies we do through MIDAS require a diverse group of people to communicate with each other every day. One thing I love about the way MIDAS has matured over the years is that we’ve built a level of trust and collaboration. Our researchers freely share data, ideas, and analytical and computational tools.

As we’ve learned, health policy questions emerge and develop almost instantly as new issues arise. Our challenge will continue to be modeling in this real-time context.