New approaches to old problems: The Omics Initiative

Malaria, one of the oldest diseases to affect humanity, remains a very real problem in the modern world. Its most devastating consequence is the approximately one million deaths a year from the disease. Despite decades-long efforts at eradication, prevalence is on the increase. With rising global temperatures, increasing resistance to pesticides and drugs, and no proven vaccine, malaria is likely to shift zones of infection to new areas and may even re-emerge in the northern hemisphere. We need a new type of research initiative to address this age-old problem.

Krish Seetah, associate professor of anthropology in Stanford's School of Humanities and Sciences, is leading the charge for an interdisciplinary approach to studying malaria, among other global issues of concern, through an initiative that will be housed in Stanford's Institute for Research in the Social Sciences (IRiSS). Additionally, Jochen Kumm, visiting scholar at the Stanford School of Medicine from 2016 to 2019 and innovator in the field of data-driven health diagnoses, has been and will continue to be a key collaborator on the program. Regarding the motivation to collaborate with IRiSS, Seetah explained that "IRiSS, Stanford’s hub for aligning social science and humanities approaches with big complex datasets, will support the Omics Initiative to operationalize the past, for the benefit of humanity.” 

The research agenda of the Omics Initiative – named for its emphasis on big data approaches to genomics, proteomics, and phenomics – is based on the fact that today’s big challenges, linked to climate, disease, and social injustice, can be much better understood, modeled, and predicted when using multiple sources of evidence that afford a longitudinal lens on the modern condition. 

The Omics Initiative embodies a unique, timely, and effective integration of biological and data science with the social sciences and humanities. A global network of researchers will harness and generate evidence on human behavior, and then seek to explain that behavior to gain new insights into causation and develop predictive models that serve as policy tools. 

While the initiative will be supported by IRiSS, the novel data and approaches utilized will require collaboration with faculty and institutions across campus and the globe. For instance, now more than ever, archival evidence is attainable and searchable in a manner that rivals contemporary data sources on demographics, climate, and geospatial mapping. The OMICS Initiative will collaborate with Stanford University Libraries and libraries around the world to digitize collections on demography, climatic fluctuations, migration, and epidemics to enable massive integration of archival data into omics-level analyses. Such interdisciplinary research will also involve collaborations with faculty from Stanford's departments, schools, and centers such as anthropology, history, biology, earth sciences, and HAI and, internationally, with partners at academic institutions worldwide. 

Seetah's history with IRiSS dates back to a stint as a 2018-2019 Faculty Fellow, during which time he worked to produce a malaria early warning predictive model to serve as a proof of concept for the Omics Initiative model of research, which he continued with an IRiSS Faculty Seed Grant during the 2019-2020 academic year. “The support and guidance I have received from IRiSS staff and leadership team has been exceptional, helping to progress the work on vector borne disease and laying the groundwork for The Omics Initiative," commented Seetah. The malaria project will serve as the first item on the Omics Initiative research agenda. Karen Cook, Faculty Director of IRiSS, is pleased “that the institute can support the early stage development of this significant initiative which draws on the talents of researchers across campus and beyond to provide longitudinal evidence that may affect not only policy but a deeper understanding of the linkages between climate change over time and disease prevalence.”