As a high school student Alison P. Galvani, Ph.D., wrote a letter to the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. She told him she enjoyed his book The Blind Watchmaker, but took issue with his point that speciation—the evolutionary process through which new species form—can occur only gradually. In his reply Dawkins praised her argument and encouraged her to apply to the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. Galvani heeded this advice, and earned her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from Oxford and stayed there to earn a doctorate under theoretical biologist Robert May in 2002.

As a graduate student Galvani took the plunge into epidemiology and gained a foothold in the research methods that she’s taken further in the years since. While at Oxford, she met the philanthropist Charles Ryland Burnett III and his friend William A. Stender.

Burnett and Stender were impressed with Galvani’s research. Her innovative approaches to studying disease transmission particularly interested Burnett. In 2015 Burnett and Stender came together to endow the Burnett and Stender Families Professorship of Public Health, to which Galvani was appointed in September. “I thought if there was any way I could help promote her work and views, then that was the best thing I could do,” Burnett said.

In a short time, Galvani, also professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Modeling and Analysis, has tackled diverse public health questions using epidemiological models and statistical analysis, from mapping Chikungunya virus cases to controlling outbreaks of sleeping sickness to Hepatitis C virus screening.

A number of Galvani’s research papers have had a direct impact on improving public health policies. Until recently, for example, the United Kingdom’s National Health Services (NHS) did not offer rotavirus vaccination as a component of routine childhood vaccination. Based on traditional cost-effectiveness analyses that did not take into account the dynamics of disease transmission, the NHS had deemed rotavirus vaccination to not be cost-effective according to their criteria. Then, Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccines division of the pharmaceutical company Sanofi, expressed interest in Galvani’s approaches that integrate transmission dynamics into analyses of cost-effectiveness.

The company approached Galvani and asked her to reconsider the question in anticipation of an NHS policy review. Galvani took into account that vaccination of one baby not only provides protection for that specific baby, but also reduces transmission to the population in general. By accounting for transmission dynamics, Galvani and her team found that rotavirus vaccination of infants in the U.K. would be cost-effective. These results were presented to the NHS, which went ahead and implemented the policy. Because of Galvani’s work, babies in the U.K. now receive vaccination against rotavirus.

Burnett said he hopes more students will become interested in the field of public health as a result of Galvani’s research and instruction. “Public health is such an important field,” he said. “[Galvani’s] tenacity and ability to use mathematics to study how diseases are spread [are] uniquely important.”