Mihaljevic awarded NAU Pilot Project Program research grant for West Nile virus work

Joseph Mihaljevic working in his lab

Northern Arizona University’s Southwest Health Equity Research Collaborative (SHERC) recently awarded Joseph Mihaljevic a research grant through its Pilot Project Program.

Mihaljevic, an assistant professor in NAU’s School of Informatics, Computing and Cyber Systems (SICCS), will work with Crystal Hepp, assistant professor in SICCS, and Benjamin Ruddell, director of SICCS, on “Epidemiological modeling to predict spatial disparities in West Nile virus infection risk in the Southwest.”

Maricopa County annually ranks in the top 10 U.S. counties for the highest number of West Nile virus (WNV) cases in humans. Mihaljevic, Hepp and Ruddell hope to leverage climate data to predict the risk of WNV transmission from mosquitoes to humans in each zip code on a weekly basis.

“Our hope is to understand how variation in temperature and precipitation across Maricopa County impacts mosquito abundances, which will affect the risk of WNV infection in local communities,” Mihaljevic said. “We then want to see which demographic characteristics help us to understand disparities in infection risk across the county, above and beyond any differences in climate.”

Mihaljevic said the long-term goal is to use modeling to understand WNV across the United States in different ecoregions and develop more refined mosquito control strategies that are informed by microclimates and the demographics of local communities.

“Overall, we hope to reduce the burden of disease in an equitable manner,” Mihaljevic said.

The Investigator Development Core (IDC) of SHERC funded Mihaljevic’s new pilot projects during the fourth annual cycle of its five-year grant. The IDC supports 14 pilot projects, investing more than $900,000 in direct costs in funding for health equity research. In total, the SHERC IDC has supported 17 pilot projects, including three that have already ended, across various fields related to improving health equity.

The purpose of the Pilot Project Program is to provide preliminary seed funding to support and mentor junior investigators with projects that address diseases that disproportionately impact populations vulnerable to health disparities as well as projects that lead to development and support of sustainable relationships with community-based partners.

“I’m very appreciative of this funding opportunity from SHERC and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This pilot project will help propel my collaboration with Dr. Hepp, who has been studying WNV in the U.S. Southwest for many years, and with Dr. Ruddell, who is an expert in urban environments,” Mihaljevic said. “Importantly, I hope that this project will position our team to make rapid advances towards predicting where and when we will see large outbreaks of WNV.”

SHERC is an NIH-funded cooperative agreement with the Center for Health Equity Research at Northern Arizona University. SHERC is supported by funding from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities of the NIH (U54MD012388).

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Lisa Dahm | Center for Health Equity Research