Infectious disease research focuses on synthesizing the ecological and evolutionary dynamics of hosts and parasites and exploring optimal strategies for both immune defense and public health intervention. Faculty pursue this integration across scales from parasite and immune molecules to global pandemic spread. Epidemiological and social science theory, cutting edge data analysis, laboratory science and field work are combined to explore an extremely wide range of systems, spanning viruses, bacteria, protozoa and helminths affecting human, animal and plant populations and communities.
More than half of the species known to biology are parasitic on the free-living species that form the focus of more than 90% of biological studies. Parasites and pathogens are arguably the strongest inter-specific evolutionary force in the natural world. While they cause major amounts of suffering to humans, they also operate to enhance diversity in natural ecosystems. The many complexities of their own life cycles make them perfect subjects for study by anyone interested in evolution and natural history.
All organisms defend themselves against parasites. Defenses range from constitutive, nonspecific barriers to inducible, acutely specific molecular weapons. A crucial challenge in evolutionary and ecological immunology is to explain the diversity of defense strategies, immune system schema and susceptibilities to infection observed across the tree of life.
The rate at which an infectious disease spreads through a host population – and thus its potential to cause an epidemic or even pandemic – is shaped by factors across diverse biological processes and scales. For example, the size and timing of a disease outbreak can depend simultaneously upon seasonality of school terms, heterogeneous behavior of individuals, mortality risk posed by infection, and the population-wide immune profile.