Meet Thomas Van Boeckel from the University of Gothenburg, our latest Fellow in the SciLifeLab & Wallenberg National Program for Data-Driven Life Science (DDLS). So far, new fellows have been recruited to the Program, at Chalmers, Umeå University, Linköping University, Uppsala University, The Swedish Museum of Natural History (NRM), Stockholm University, the University of Gothenburg, and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU). Thomas will join the Epidemiology and biology of infection DDLS research area (RA).
Thomas originally studied environmental engineering in Brussels, which was followed by biostatistics and disease mapping. He received his initial training in disease mapping as a visitor in the department of zoology at Oxford, before obtaining his PhD in Brussels where he worked on the spatial epidemiology of Avian Influenza. In 2013, Thomas left Belgium, first to be a Fulbright fellow at Princeton (2013-2015) then to be a Branco Weiss Fellow at ETH Zurich. In 2019, he became an assistant professor at ETH Zurich and started his own lab: the Health Geography and Policy Group, a very international team of 8 people. He is now looking forward to establishing a new lab in Gothenburg.
How do you think your expertise can contribute to the program?
I hope to be able to strengthen the program in its quantitative aspects by complementing all the nice “wet lab” expertise with large-scale macroscopic analysis. I hope to be of use to fellows who have an interest in expanding their work into the geographic dimension, and contribute to the link with the planetary biology initiative at DDLS. If I can be of use to the pandemic activities that would also be nice. In Switzerland, I had a nice experience working on these topics, interacting with the army and government agencies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shortly describe your research in an easy to understand way.
I do maps of disease. In particular, my team produces maps of antimicrobial resistance in animals, with a focus on low- and middle-income countries. Maps are useful tools for at least two reasons: first maps help identify regions where disease surveillance needs to be ramped-up. In the case of antimicrobial resistance, this could consist in identifying where to install new laboratory capacities, or where to increase access to veterinary services. Having maps, helps make these decisions on an objective and quantitative basis. A second aspect in which maps are useful is as tools for communication: the raison d’être of my research is to guide policy. Maps are remarkably powerful tools to summarize, and communicate health challenges to policy makers.
How do you think the program and interactions with the other DDLS-Fellows will benefit you?
I am a keyboard biologist. Thus, being surrounded by clinicians and wet lab scientists will be an opportunity to learn. I hope it will root my computational work in reality, and strengthen my understanding of how this type of research is conducted. In Gothenburg, there is a very rich ecosystem of field- and wet lab-scientists working on antimicrobial resistance. I very much look forward to building projects with them.
Name one thing that people generally do not know about you.
I might be a Swede. My mother has a Scandinavian-sounding name, and a debate has been going on in my family about whether we may be descendants of Swedish mercenaries that were recruited by Louis XIV of France some 300 years ago. However, there are no strict proofs of this. If one of the DDLS fellows working in genomics wants to help us close the debate, I would be thrilled to benefit from his/her expertise.
Where do you see yourself in five years regarding the DDLS aspect?
I would very much like to establish myself at the University of Gothenburg. I would like to use the DDLS network to build an interdisciplinary team that produces evidence to support decision makers. This could include governments, but also international funders and companies active in pharma and animal production. Historically, Sweden has been a driving force for pushing AMR on the international agenda. I think it would be a natural home for my professional future.
In one word, describe how you feel about becoming a DDLS-Fellow.