A diagram of a network representing the Viral Networks Workshop.

The Evolution of Viral Networks: H1N1, Ebola, and Zika

On January 28-30, 2018, the National Library of Medicine will host “Viral Networks: A Workshop in the Digital Humanities and Medical History” funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) through a generous grant to Virginia Tech, and held in cooperation with Virginia Tech. The workshop will convene medical historians whose research shows particular promise for making innovative use of methods, tools, and data from the digital humanities and will result in a book. Members of the public are invited to attend the keynote address by Theresa MacPhail, PhD, Assistant Professor Science and Technology Studies at Stevens Institute of Technology, and author of The Viral Network: A Pathography of the H1N1 Influenza Pandemic (Cornell University Press, 2014). Today we hear from Dr. MacPhail about her work.

Circulating Now: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your typical workday like?

An informal portrait.Theresa MacPhail: I’m originally from Indiana via New Hampshire—my childhood was split between them and so I have both a Midwestern and New England mindset. I’m a medical anthropologist—so I study the cultural aspects of the practice of medicine and public health. My typical workday involves a little bit of writing, a little bit of research, and a lot of teaching—typically classes in global health and medical humanities.

CN: You’ll be giving the Keynote address in January at NLM at the “Viral Networks” workshop, would you tell us about what this phrase ‘Viral Networks’ means to you?

TM: To me, the phrase means that human communication, with all our varied behaviors and daily interactions that produce knowledge and lead to information-sharing, are not all that dissimilar from the ways in which viruses “communicate” with each other. It occurred to me that institutions and organizations are like the cells that viruses invade and then swap gene segments inside. We’re the viruses in this metaphor and the information and experiences we swap make up part of our “genes” or expertise. I realized that knowledge about diseases mapped onto their phylogenetic trees. That just by looking at where a virus was “from” you could learn something about the network of scientists and epidemiologists working on that virus. I think the metaphor can extend to all types of human interactions and information-swapping, however. Especially in the digital age. I think there’s a reason that we use “viruses” to talk about the spread of code. It’s really all about information flow.

CN: Your field is medical anthropology, how are medical anthropologists using digital humanities strategies in their research? Can you give us an example from your own work?

TM: I think textual mining— especially in relationship to digitized historical texts and cultural trends— is beginning to become more commonplace. It’s useful, for instance, to think about when and how the word “allergy” begins appearing in texts and then its steep rise in usage by using a simple tool like Google’s Ngram. Obviously, you can also see correlations in word usage—when are people talking about allergies and homeopathy together, for instance—and maybe hone in on more interesting research gaps and questions. Anthropologists are still pretty wedded to non-computational methods—we’re big believers in non-quantified, subjective qualitative data (or what the rest of the academic world jokingly refers to as “anecdata”). But I do think that data visualization and text mining have a place in anthropological research— especially in the beginnings of our inquiries, when we’re trying to figure out what the important research questions should be.

CN: How do libraries support the kind of research you do?

People demonstrate how to put on protective clothing during a presentation.
Dr. MacPhail and a student demonstrate how Personal Protective Equipment during an outbreak is donned.
Courtesy Theresa MacPhail

TM: Well, my new project on allergies wouldn’t be possible—or wouldn’t be as robust—without my initial months of research in the rare books library at the New York Academy of Medicine. I spent months poring over early allergy texts and the librarian there was crucial to helping me locate rare finds that helped me to see the arc of how allergy research began and how it developed throughout the last century. My old project on influenza was also really dependent on the history of Hong Kong’s role in the viral network of expertise—from the very beginning of research in the late 1800s. I find that librarians are great allies in the initial stages of current research—because they often can point to sources that even a careful scholar might have overlooked or simply not known about in the first place. The acknowledgment section of my next book will have a big thank you to the librarian at NYAM, that’s for sure.

CN: You are currently studying allergies and the use of mobile apps and wearable sensors, what should we know about this new technology?

TM: Well, there are some interesting things going on with wearables for allergies. Scientists in the lab have to work very closely with engineers to develop small devices that can accurately detect allergens in the air or in food samples in real-time. It’s a major challenge. What has fascinated me so far is that there are a few immunological scientists working on allergies that think these devices—especially for food allergies—are a bad idea because of the high possibility of false negatives. The other thing that has fascinated me is how many patients are unaware of the mobile apps—most developed by pharmaceutical companies as part of their marketing for their own products—and wearables that are available. Most patients have told me they really wouldn’t use a wearable or an app, so one of the questions I’m interested in going forward is the mismatch between innovation in tech and its actual usage. If no one is using these apps or wearables, then why are we creating them? Will the interest shift and will patients adopt this technology? Or will this be another Google Glass? At this point, it’s anyone’s guess.

Watch on YouTube

The Keynote Address for “Viral Networks” will be held January 29, 2018 from 11:00 a.m. to noon in the Balcony B Auditorium of the NIH Natcher Conference Center, Building 45, in Bethesda, MD. You can watch the live stream online via NIH Videocast.

With thanks to our collaborators at Virginia Tech, Tom Ewing, Peter Potter, Katherine Randall, Amy Nelson, and Samarth Swarup.

Theresa MacPhail‘s presentation is part of our ongoing history of medicine lecture series, which promotes awareness and use of NLM and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. All lectures are live-streamed globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed about the lecture series on Twitter at #NLMHistTalk.