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Ill-fated: Tech-savvy biologist makes an ideal host of epidemics MOOC

Digital epidemiologist Marcel Salathé combined his biology and computer programming background to design Penn State’s first science MOOC and Moocdemic, a location-based epidemic simulation game that can be played on a smartphone. Image: Michelle Bixby
November 7, 2013

Marcel Salathé is an assistant professor of biology, but you won’t find him in a laboratory. And he’s got some news for you: “You are most likely illiterate.”

That’s what he spoke about on Nov. 8 at the student-organized Discovery-U talks where he shared his solution.

Salathé believes that it is important to teach students — particularly science majors — computer programing skills, something he uses in his research at Penn State’s University Park campus.

Salathé works in the emerging field of digital epidemiology, where the traditional sciences intersect with computational technology to track health and the spread of disease.

“I feel like once you know how to do these things — once you know how to hook into all these data sources on the Web, once you know how to write a Web page, once you know how to develop an app for an iPhone or Android — suddenly it’s like you’re almost in a different dimension,” Salathé said. “We often think of science as this traditional activity in the lab, and there is a ton of that going on — it’ll always be going on — but there’s this entirely new dimension of how we do science.”

Salathé works in the emerging field of digital epidemiology, where the traditional sciences intersect with computational technology to track health and the spread of disease.

“We’re mostly working with Twitter data right now,” he said. “We’re interested to see whether the fact that hundreds of millions of people are sharing all kinds of aspects of their lives on social media can be harnessed for disease surveillance.”

“It’s so fascinating, so I feel like we’re not doing anyone a service when we teach them to be a scientist, but not the ability to program,” he said. “Science majors should be able to do these things as well.”

Timing is everything

For Salathé, the marriage of the two interests came at an opportune time.

He was studying science as an undergraduate student in Switzerland when he decided to leave school to build his first online business.

“There was just no way that I would not be part of this,” he said of the emerging Web work in the late 1990s. “To me this stuff is interesting because you can connect so many people.”

Salathé wanted Penn State's first science-themed massive online open course, or MOOC, to reflect exactly the reason why he was so attracted to Penn State — the University’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, which he calls one of the world’s top three centers. “There are all these great infectious disease scientists here,” he said. “Why not showcase that and give people the ability to interact with all these people.”

Salathé found success, but he missed the challenges of school.

He returned to finish his undergraduate work and ended up staying to earn a master’s degree and a doctorate. He then spent two years as a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University studying the spread of infectious disease before deciding to move to Penn State in 2010.

“Stanford is a great place, but when it comes to infectious diseases, there are a few people here and there, but there isn’t that kind of density,” he said. “The Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Penn State is really one of the world’s top three centers. Here you can basically just reach out and grab a random person, and that person is working on infectious diseases. That’s what I found so attractive here.”

An optional component to the epidemics MOOC, Moocdemic is a mobile game where learners detect, spread and control a fictional infectious disease in real time. Image: Penn State

Salathé has engineered projects like PlantVillage — a user-moderated online platform that helps people grow their own food and monitor plant disease — and CrowdBreaks — an online crowdsourced disease surveillance system that uses data from Twitter.

“On my way from a student to a faculty member, I realized that because I knew a fair bit of programing and because I actually dropped out of college for two years to do a Web-based start-up, I felt like these programming skills have always given me a bit of an edge,” Salathé said. “So, when these new things like social media came around, I could just very quickly and painlessly embrace them, and it gave me a competitive edge.”

Engaging online learners

Salathé’s most recent online project is spreading around the world.

The online Moocdemic game — a location-based simulation game of a real-world epidemic — was simultaneously launched in October at the start of Salathé’s first Penn State massive open online course (MOOC) called “Epidemics – the Dynamics of Infectious Diseases.”


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