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Arnold School of Public Health

Melissa Nolan awarded $5.4 million, health policy fellowship to continue fighting COVID-19, vector-borne diseases and the disparities they create

February 21, 2022 | Erin Bluvas,

It’s hard to believe Melissa Nolan arrived at UofSC just three years ago for her first academic appointment. The epidemiologist’s infectious disease expertise has proven essential to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic for both the university and the state – and even at the national level.

What’s next for the rising star? With vaccination rates waning and variants like Omicron continuing to surface, the pandemic isn’t over yet, and its effects will reverberate for years.

Nolan and her colleagues at the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) recently wrapped up SC Strong, a statewide surveillance initiative to capture COVID-19 impacts in local communities. Next, they’ll continue their collaborations with a project aimed at addressing the health disparities resulting from, or worsened by, the pandemic. The team will also develop recommendations for shoring up the state’s defenses against current and future pandemics.

With $5.4 million in funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nolan and co-principal investigator Virginie Daguise (director of DHEC’s Bureau of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention) will assess community buy-in for at-home COVID-19 testing, evaluate intended use and self-reporting of results, determine perceptions of at-home testing for minority, rural and hard-to-reach populations, and measure testing performance of at-home diagnostics.  

“We know that certain populations are less likely to get tested for COVID-19, and this grant fills a critical knowledge gap," Nolan says. "This project works with minorities and rural populations to elevate their voices and create innovative testing solutions not only for the current pandemic, but for other health concerns, such as diabetes, prostate cancer, and for future infectious disease outbreaks.”

This project will take place alongside Nolan’s ongoing activities, including teaching and media work and her own research program focused on zoonoses, such as tick-borne illnesses and Chagas disease. Always committed to enhancing her own expertise, Nolan will also participate in the Entomological Society of America’s Science Policy Fellows program.

I yearn to continue serving the public in this manner, and as an early career scientist, I look forward to passing these skillsets on to my trainees during the next 40 years of my career.

-Melissa Nolan, assistant professor of epidemiology

Nolan was one of only five entomologists nationwide selected to join the 2021 class. Over the next two years, the cohort will participate in federal policy training that equips the fellows to successfully advocate for the discipline. In alignment with her primary research areas, which focus on vector-borne diseases that disproportionately affect underserved groups, Nolan will use her time as a fellow to learn how to best advocate for these groups and increase the representation of its members and other underrepresented populations (including women and minorities) in influential/decision-making circles (e.g., researchers, policy makers).

“Being a part of this prestigious training fellowship will advance my ability to successfully represent those unheard voices to our policy makers,” Nolan says. “I yearn to continue serving the public in this manner, and as an early career scientist, I look forward to passing these skillsets on to my trainees during the next 40 years of my career.” 

As a result of the training she received from her doctoral mentor Peter Hotez at Baylor College of Medicine, Nolan has extensive experience communicating with non-scientific audiences about important health issues. To date, Nolan has given more than 200 live TV, film or print media interviews on vector-borne and infectious diseases in news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, BBC World News and USA Today.

Nolan has also leveraged her skillset in translating and effectively communicating scientific information to engage policymakers to enact state and federal legislation to support neglected disease surveillance. She even persuaded a local vector control agency in an emerging Chagas disease hotspot of California to receive training from her team and launch a weekly surveillance program of the “kissing” bug (Triatomine) that spreads the illness. 

The formal training Nolan will receive through the Science Policy Fellows Program will build on these experiences and cement her understanding of how to best advance health equity while reducing the spread of infectious diseases through policy and communication activities. Together, Nolan’s new grant and the fellowship place her on a trajectory to not only building her expertise but sharing it with the world as well.


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