Professor’s research aims for proactive approach to future pandemics

By Jesús F. Jiménez, assistant director of digital content

When Dr. Dhananjai (DJ) Rao was in the 10th grade, his parents took out a five-year bank loan to purchase his first IBM computer.

People thought they were crazy for taking out that loan for a “toy,” but the investment has paid off. Rao, an associate professor of computer science and software engineering at Miami University, has an accomplished career that includes several accolades.

A recipient of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) CHIKV Challenge Award, Rao was instrumental in Miami receiving funding for Foresight, a software system that enables forecasting of emergent epidemics and assesses policies for mitigating epidemics.

Rao is among the award-winning faculty teaching courses at the alumni association’s virtual Winter College Feb. 26-27. His Winter College course, Foresight: The Science Behind the Government’s Efforts to Predict the Future and Protect the People is at 10 a.m. this Saturday, Feb. 27. Registration is available now.

In a few short words can you tell us about your Winter College course?

We will introduce students to how policy decisions are made to protect the health and life of all citizens. The examples used focus predominantly on mosquito-borne diseases, such as Zika, yellow fever and dengue, but the ideas are applicable to other pandemics like the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as well.

Winter College faculty highlight, Dr. Dhananjai (DJ) Rao holding a 3D mosquito model.

How does it feel to earn recognition through accomplishments like winning the CHIKV Challenge Award and being selected for this DHS funding?

We’ve been working on this for years with the students and putting a lot of time and effort into it. When it comes to fruition and we get that recognition, that gives it a very important sense of personal satisfaction. Getting these awards from prestigious organizations like DARPA has also had an impact on my professional growth.

Can you tell us about the funding for Foresight?

I was working with DARPA and the White House on dengue forecasting and we applied to the Department of Homeland Security. They found the methodology that I was using to be very interesting and unique and the results were impressive. They decided to move forward with implementing that model and using that for some of the studies that they were doing.

Can you elaborate on some of the methodologies that you use?

The level of detail that was included in this model is remarkable and includes weather – temperature and precipitation – air travel data from 150 international airports, the daily movements of people in neighborhoods when they travel for school, work and entertainment. It also included detailed mosquito populations and went through a series of machine learning-based processes to calibrate this model to reflect the real-world epidemics. Based on the information, we were able to identify very unique information, and it provided pretty good forecasts for many of the high-risk areas.

Winter College faculty highlight, Dr. Dhananjai (DJ) Rao.

Are there any specifics from your studies that you can share about how the government can be better prepared to protect its citizens?

The way the Department of Homeland Security Centers for Disease Control manages the disease is analogous to weather modeling and simulation. Now we have very sophisticated weather forecasting systems that can forecast incoming weather so that people can take protection. Similarly, we are now trying to use advanced modeling and simulation where we can understand how diseases can spread within the population, analyze how we can contain the spread and mitigate the impact of these diseases.

How is this information relevant to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic?

This model includes approaches where we can assess the impact of different strategies such as travel bans or using personal protective equipment or looking at school closures. These are the tools that the government has to mitigate the spread of the viruses so you can rank and pick the strategies that are most appropriate for a given geographic area.

You’ve taught at previous Winter Colleges. What has been your favorite part of that experience?

The perspectives that the audience brings into the work is what I enjoy the most. We present some of the ideas and the approaches that we have tried, and sometimes the audience members who have experience in this field come up and provide alternative approaches or suggestions. That is invaluable input that I get from interacting with some of the more experienced audience. That helps to spur more interesting research of our current students who are working on some of these topics.

How do you think this year’s virtual Winter College experience will be different?

I need to be more interactive in soliciting input from the audience, and I also hope that with this virtual format we’ll be able to hear more voices because people can, not only speak up, but they can also share through chats or they can share links to articles. The sharing becomes a lot easier vs. an in-person format where you’re restricted to one person talking at a time.