Kirsten Hokeness_Faculty Panel on epidemic outbreaks
On Nov. 6, Arts and Science faculty members teamed up for a panel discussion on the real-world integration of disciplines through the lens of disease outbreak management. Kirsten Hokeness, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of the Department of Science and Technology, discusses a scientist's role, which is understanding the disease and the mechanisms of transmission.
Arts and Sciences faculty panel demonstrates interconnection of disciplines
Dec 04, 2019, by Staff Writer

At the interactive panel discussion, “An Interdisciplinary Look at Outbreak Management,” on November 6, faculty from the College of Arts and Sciences teamed up to demonstrate the real-world integration of their respective disciplines. From their unique perspectives, including scientist, physician assistant, psychologist, mathematician, ethicist, and communications expert, each of the panel members discussed the ways in which seemingly unrelated disciplines contribute to the global challenge of managing a disease outbreak.

An integrated curriculum for an interconnected world

The expert panel illustrated the power of Bryant’s integrated business and liberal arts education, which requires arts and sciences majors to minor in business, and business majors to choose a liberal arts minor. This innovative curriculum provides abundant opportunities for deep learning in their chosen areas of study, as well as exploration and integration of a broad universe of complementary academic disciplines. All Bryant students learn the critical thinking and analytical skills needed to understand how their work informs and affects the organizations, systems, and individuals involved.

When it comes to the management of disease outbreaks, many leaders within specific disciplines and systems must mobilize to mitigate the negative impact on communities and countries.

When it comes to the management of disease outbreaks, many leaders within specific disciplines and systems must mobilize to mitigate the negative impact on communities and countries. To follow is a look at how Bryant’s world-class faculty showcased their expertise and approach to outbreak management.  

The Scientist: understanding the disease that triggers an outbreak

Kirsten Hokeness, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of the Department of Science and Technology, discussed a scientists role in outbreak management: understanding the disease and the mechanisms of transmission. It’s a scientists’ responsibility to know who is susceptible, how they can limit an outbreak scenario, and work to develop a treatment.

“There's not much that can actually stop an outbreak,” says Hokeness. “Geographically we can limit outbreaks but since we are in a world where we travel a lot, one flight on an airplane can spread this thing throughout the globe. It’s hard to recognize when the spread of disease knows no boundaries.”

The Physician Assistant: responding to and treating the outbreak

The role of a Physician Assistant, like Jay Amrien, MPAS, PA-C, Director of Bryant’s Physician Assistant program, is to treat patients with symptoms. Whether deployed to a disaster area or treating locally, Physician Assistants are the first line of defense in interacting with patients, asking the right questions, treating the patients, and trying to prevent the spread of the disease.

“When you respond to these outbreaks, we put on all of our protective gear, we take it to the worst-case scenario, and then we elevate it up,” says Amrien. “At the local level, that might be your fire department. On a national level, that might be Centers for Disease Control, FEMA, the US Military, and the National Guard.  When we look at the United States, we're exceedingly fortunate to have resources to do that.”

The Psychologist: understanding and aiding in the emotional response to an outbreak

“Psychologists are probably not the first people you think of when there is an outbreak,” said Joseph Trunzo, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology. “But we actually can and do play a pretty vital role in managing the continuing outbreak scenarios.” Since an outbreak tends to elicit emotion, and not just from those infected, Psychologists undergo training and are deployed to disaster areas for disease outbreaks. Their goal is to get people to behave in a particular way to minimize the spread of disease.

Psychologists work closely with public policy makers and communication experts to convey the right message to facilitate the desired behavior, keeping cultural elements and sensitivities in mind. In addition, they provide services for the first responders, who are in the trenches of helping people manage these diseases.

The Mathematician: calculating the potential impact of an outbreak

Mathematicians like Rick Gorvett, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of the Department of Mathematics, are tasked with understanding the mathematical underpinnings of an outbreak. Through mathematical modeling, it’s their responsibility to calculate the various ways a disease can spread throughout a society, and test different methods of preventing the disease from spreading any further.

“Every one of the aspects of this particular interdisciplinary activity is absolutely critical,” said Gorvett, talking about his colleagues’ involvement in outbreak management through science, medicine, psychology, ethics, and communication. “We’re talking about lives. And although you don’t usually think of it, mathematical modeling can be a matter of life or death.”

The Ethicist: overseeing the ethical issues in an outbreak

Jennifer Horan, Ph.D., Lecturer of English and Cultural Studies, shared how ethics fits into the management of disease outbreaks. With an ethical responsibility to seek the general welfare and overall happiness of a society, ethicists look to mitigate or minimalize pain by answering two questions: “What is good?" and “What is right?”

“The ethical disposition is one that is prefatory, one that is preventative, and one that is following up in the years after an outbreak,” says Horan. Ethicists often provide peer mentoring and empowering for medical practitioners during an outbreak, tailoring the response based on the needs of each person and community.

The Communications Expert: managing a crisis through effective communication

According to Chris Morse, Ph.D., Professor of Communication, communication has a “phenomenally important role in outbreak management.” During the panel, Morse assigned “key players” within the audience – scientists, healthcare providers, mathematicians, first responders, politicians, the infected, and the media – and suggested that those involved are good at doing their assigned duties, but aren’t good at communicating with one another.

“If we find out what the actual virus or outbreak is, and we figure out how it's transmitted, we need to be able to design messages for these experts to make the community aware of what they need to do or not to do, but at the same time, not freak them out,” says Morse. “That's not easy.”

“We also have to understand that we’re dealing with human beings,” Morse continued. “The way we interact, the way we present, the way we talk to those human beings is just as important as all the work that's being done to study them.”

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