Welcoming New Faculty: Justin Remais

Photos Courtesy of Karen Uribe
Photo: Justin Remais
Justin Remais

Justin Remais and his research team investigate the environmental and social forces that drive the dynamics of infectious diseases, including unplanned urbanization, climate change, industrialization of agriculture, and other major socio-environmental phenomena that will shape future patterns of global infectious diseases in the decades to come.

Remais, PhD ’06, joined the UC Berkeley School of Public Health in January 2016 as an associate professor of Environmental Health Sciences (EHS). Previously, he was an associate professor in the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University jointly appointed in the Departments of Environmental Health and Epidemiology. He also served on the faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

To transition his research program, Remais is busy recruiting a new team of graduate students and staff to collaborate on three research projects he brought with him to UC Berkeley focused on the environmental dynamics of infectious diseases. He launched one of these projects in 2015—a 5-year, $2.5 million NIH-Fogarty R01 grant funded by the joint National Science Foundation/National Institutes of Health Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease Program—with Co-Principal Investigator Jason Rohr from the University of South Florida.

“This is exciting research that examines the risks that come with having both chemical and infectious hazards in the same environment, which is widely the case in the developing world,” Remais notes, “yet few studies have characterized the ways they might interact to enhance risk and exacerbate infectious disease transmission.” The study is examining the effects of insecticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers on helminth infections in an agricultural region in the Senegal River Basin. “Our team is combining field epidemiology, experimental biology, and mathematical modeling to understanding how agrochemical use might be optimized to minimize the transmission of schistosomiasis, which affects more than 200 million people globally,” says Remais.

Other projects Remais is bringing to Berkeley reflect his group’s shift from field epidemiological studies towards Big Data analyses of the environmental drivers of infectious diseases. His 5-year, $2.3 million National Science Foundation grant aims to develop techniques for forecasting the consequences of a changing and more variable climate on waterborne and vector-borne infections in Ecuador and China. “Our NSF-funded project is developing new computational approaches for understanding how a range of water-related infectious diseases respond to rapid environmental change—including diarrheal diseases, leptospirosis, soil-transmitted helminths, and vector-borne infections—so that we can more effectively interrupt their transmission,” explains Remais. His team is modeling the fine scale interactions between social dynamics, hydrodynamics and pathogen fate and transport in two contrasting settings in Western China and Northern Ecuador, using massive, longitudinal epidemiological datasets drawn from both active and passive surveillance systems.

“We’re coming upon an era where vast public health datasets are widely available, even in resource-limited settings, allowing more data-oriented problem solving,” says Remais. “This is compelling us to develop and apply new analytical tools that can identify subtle patterns in complex spatio-temporal disease data,” he adds, “providing insights on how, mechanistically, environmental dynamics influence the transmission of infectious agents.” One example of Big Data that Remais is working with is China’s national infectious disease reporting (NIDR) system, which records the incidence of about 40 mandatory notifiable infections at every clinical site across China’s entire healthcare system. “We now have long-term NIDR data sufficient to examine China’s epidemiologic transition with respect to infectious diseases,” notes Remais, “and at Berkeley we are working to understand how infections interact across multiple scales—within individuals, and across populations, regions, and the globe.” This work reflects a long-standing scientific exchange between Remais and his colleagues in Beijing and in the western province of Sichuan, where he has conducted research for more than a decade.

Photo: Phil Collender and Chris Hoover
Philip Collender and Chris Hoover

Two research scientists from Emory University—Philip Collender and Chris Hoover—moved to the Bay Area to continue their work with Remais at the School of Public Health. Collender’s work involves the analysis of complex, spatial-temporal environmental exposure and health data, with a particular focus on understanding the role of flooding and other surface water dynamics in the transmission of waterborne infectious diseases. He is playing a lead role on the NSF project in China and Ecuador, says Remais. Hoover is a spatial scientist who has expertise in modeling infectious disease dynamics, particularly using mathematical models to understand the transmission of pathogens through environmental pathways. He is taking the lead on developing bioinformatic approaches to model the interactions between the chemical and infectious agents being investigated in the Fogarty project in Senegal.

Photo: Justin Remais infront of the UC Berkeley Campanile
Justin Remais infront of the UC Berkeley Campanile

Once a student at UC Berkeley, Remais is rediscovering the campus as a faculty member and is excited about working with Berkeley’s extraordinary students and scholars. “I care a lot about student success,” says Remais, who mentored dozens of students in seven years at Emory, many of whom published peer-reviewed manuscripts in top journals. “My lab door is always open, and that means students can jump onto projects within my lab with considerable ease. I am excited to work with the exceptional diversity of students at Berkeley,” says Remais.

“In fact, most exciting to me is when an undergraduate or graduate student in anthropology or physics or history can walk into my office, hear what we’re working on, and can see a potential future for themselves contributing to my group’s environmental problem solving. They might ultimately decide to move on to another opportunity or group, but without that chance to try their hand at working with us, without an opportunity to add their training and critical thinking to our work, they might be missing out on a formative research experience, and we’d be missing out on the unique perspective they’d bring to the rich, interdisciplinary area of science we work in.”

back to top