For Trent alumna Dr. Jane Heffernan ’96, the COVID-19 pandemic – where we’ve been, where we are now and where we are going – is a numbers game.
As one of Canada’s leading mathematicians and a director with the Centre for Disease Modelling at York University, Dr. Heffernan’s highly regarded research focuses on the spread and persistence of infectious diseases. But, not unlike the work of research colleagues across Canada and around the globe, her focus over the past year has been dedicated almost exclusively to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m really interested in quantifying the effects of immunity in the population and in a person,” says Dr. Heffernan. “As immunity is boosted, and given that it may wane over time, we want to know how these aspects change the prevalence of the disease and the severity of infections in people. A lot of my work focuses on studies of vaccination programs, trying to quantify how they build up immunity in different age groups, and then trying to quantify the successes of a vaccination program if there is waning immunity after vaccination.”
A COVID Silver Lining
In addition, Dr. Heffernan has been working on a health care demand model, the purpose being “to see if we can project when health care demand will be at a point where we can’t help all the people that need to go to the hospital.” The timing of vaccines is another area of her study that involves quantification of the effects of delaying a second dose, and how that affects both long- and short-term vaccination program outcomes.
“There’s a trade-off between covering a large number of people with one dose versus half the number of people with two doses,” she says, adding: “There’s a big optimization problem that has to be figured out.”
For all the adverse impacts COVID-19 has had globally, there is a silver lining in the form of greatly increased international collaborations between infectious disease researchers, says Dr. Heffernan. She adds the lessons taught by the 2003 SARS and 2009 H1N1 pandemics resulted in the creation of models that are helping now. Dr. Heffernan says the lessons learned now, and the new modelling created, will be a huge benefit when the next pandemic arises.
A Family Affair
Reflecting on her time at Trent – she was in the Trent-Queen’s Concurrent Education program and graduated from Trent in 2000 with an undergraduate degree in Mathematics and Computer Science – Dr. Heffernan says, “My fourth-year Mathematical Modelling course changed my path. That’s when I decided I wanted to go into Disease Modelling.”
“My brother, my sister, my husband and my sister-in-law…we all went to Trent. I look back on walking to class over the bridge across the river and tobogganing down the drumlin on cafeteria trays. Intramural sports too, and my close network of friends. I was president of the Math Society for one year. We had a team, the pylons (πln(s)), in the Inner Tube Ultimate Frisbee League. We won the championship. Imagine…a bunch of math nerds.”
“The small classes and getting to really know your professors. Even being able to have your professor’s phone number if you needed to ask a question. My husband and I both look back at Trent as a really amazing time in our lives. We often hope our kids will go there.”
Now on sabbatical in France where she is visiting virtually with the School of Public Health at the University of Bordeaux, Dr. Heffernan is looking forward to “extending my work to some more research questions” upon her return to Canada.
“There will be a lot of questions surrounding immunity and COVID-19. There has to be a lot of long-term follow-up with all of these people who were infected and vaccinated. I expect there to be a lot more data coming out. I’m really interested in seeing how my models can make use of that data so that we can gain knowledge in immunity generation and maintenance after infection and vaccination. If you look to the past, you can always learn for the future.”