Published: 06/16/2021

Stanford’s incredibly unique ecosystem of talented researchers is an ideal place to incubate lifesaving innovations, but initial funding is still required to bring these ideas to fruition. For the past 9 years, Stanford’s Center for Innovation in Global Health has been providing funding to early-stage research projects in global health with our annual round of Global Health Seed Grants. Through partnerships with funders on and off campus, we have funded 65 grants to date, catalyzing careers and new initiatives, building much needed bridges between wide-ranging disciplines, and leading to follow-on funding for a growing portfolio of new ventures.

Today we are proud to announce seven new seed grants, each of which tackles an emerging threat to global health, and each with the potential to one day save human lives.

These projects would not be possible without the generosity of our funders, each of whom sees the importance of funding multi-disciplinary teams to generate new global health solutions. Bob and Kathy Burke, Open Philanthropy Projectthe Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Researchthe Stanford Medicine Department of Emergency Medicinethe Maternal & Child Health Research Institutethe King Center on Global Development, and the Woods Institute for the Environment — without whose support, lifesaving research that targets overlooked and marginalized populations around the world would not be possible.

We invite you to read on and learn about each of these unique projects and the potential impact they stand to have.

Modeling the Aggregate Effects of Structural Uncertainty and Their Effects on Epidemic Control 

The quick acceleration of the global COVID-19 pandemic showed us that prompt, decisive action is necessary to stop existential threats. So why didn’t we adapt to the rapidly evolving situation, acting fast and with conviction? The answer is immensely complicated, hinging on the aggregated responses of individual people who must make decisions under uncertainty, and would require a mathematical/social model to truly understand. Well, that’s just what this study aims to accomplish. With such a model, we can understand the way that individual responses to uncertainty aggregate to generate population-level responses, and allow us to develop social interventions that effectively control epidemics.

“Our goal is to make some sense of the complex dynamics of populations that are comprised of agents making decisions under uncertainty,” said James Holland Jones, PhD, one of the primary investigators of the research. “We would like to figure out either how to block social contagion that generates polarization or even utilize it to reduce polarization. It might be too much to ask that we find a definitive solution to the problems of social contagion, polarization, or misinformation, but we hope to make some progress on understanding their causes and possible interventions to mitigate them.”

Primary investigators: James Holland Jones, Margaret Levi 

Direct empirical estimates of the health burden of air pollution in developing countries 

With wildfire smoke raging in California and Beijing spending multiple days per year obscured beneath a cloud of air pollution, the health impacts of poor air quality are an urgent issue today. Although air pollution is considered one of the leading causes of premature death globally, due to data availability much of the research to date has focused on wealthy nations. This new project takes this critical area of study and applies it to infant health in low-and-middle-income countries, furthering our understanding of the global child health burden from air pollution.

“From wildfires in California to dust storms in West Africa and biomass burning in India, air pollution is a concern to varying degrees around the world and is one of our most pressing global health challenges,” said Sam Heft-Neal, PhD, one of the primary investigators of the research. “The opportunity to hopefully contribute meaningfully to better understanding of the causes of and solutions for mitigating pollution health impacts globally is our main motivation.”

Primary investigators: Marshall Burke, Sam Heft-Neal

Extreme weather events and pediatric emergency medical services utilization: Analysis of a million ambulance transports across seven states in India

Two unfortunate circumstances collide in India. First, with some of the highest child mortality rates worldwide, the country suffers from a vast amount of preventable child deaths, illnesses and traumas that could be successfully treated with timely emergency medical interventions. Second, with extreme climates and lots of low-lying land, India is one of the most vulnerable nations to climate change. As climate disasters and extreme weather events increase, it’s likely that children in India and around the world will require more emergency medical services. This study seeks to understand just how large the demand will be for care during certain types of weather events. With this understanding, we stand a much better chance of preparing for climate disasters in a way that prioritizes underserved children in climate-vulnerable locales in India.

“India is projected to be one of the nations most impacted by climate change,” said Dr. Matthew C. Strehlow, one of the primary investigators of the research. “Huge swaths of the population are at high risk for suffering emergency health conditions from these increases in severe weather events. “India’s expansive prehospital emergency care system will allow us to evaluate how severe weather impacts the health of children, especially those from vulnerable communities. With Stanford’s longstanding leadership in prehospital emergency care systems globally, we aim to work with partners from countries around the world to assess the impact of climate change and implement interventions to alleviate these risks in susceptible communities.”

Primary investigators: Matthew C. Strehlow, Jennifer A. Newberry, Tavpritesh Sethi

Investigating Animal-Sourced Food as a Global Risk for Urban Rift Valley Fever Disease Spread and Emergence 

Rift Valley fever virus has the capacity to cause severe infection in both human and animal populations. We know the virus can be transmitted to humans by mosquitoes or directly from animals, but the precise mechanism and extent of transmission remains unclear. Researchers in this study have identified a unique opportunity to better understand if the virus can be introduced to urban areas through food products, including meat and raw milk. Working in Kenya, where urbanization and demand for animal products is on the rise, the team seeks to better understand how this debilitating virus impacts us through our interaction with animals. Ultimately, the aim is to develop interventions that mitigate risk at all levels of animal product production and consumption.  

“By studying the potential for animal-sourced food products to infect humans in urban areas, we support the idea that rather than just isolated pockets of high risk in rural areas, there are mechanisms through which all people on our planet are connected,’’ said Dr. Keli N. Gerken, one of the primary investigators of the research. “We should all be concerned about high priority infectious disease that disproportionately affects the most vulnerable people and we should all work hard to mitigate risk for everyone. This is One Health in action!”

Primary investigators: A Desiree LaBeaud, Keli N Gerken, Krish Seetah 

Compounding impacts of climate and land use change on human schistosomiasis in Brazil

Brazil is in a state of change. With the land being transformed by deforestation and the climate shifting to new temperatures and levels of precipitation, some unintended consequences are arising. Schistosomiasis, a disease caused by parasites carried in certain snail species, is known to be largely dependent on environmental conditions to spread, so how will the changing environments of Brazil impact its prevalence there? This investigation will look into the compounding impacts of shifting temperature, rainfall, and land-use patterns on the dynamics of schistosomiasis, a devastating parasitic disease affecting more than 200 million people worldwide. In the words of primary investigator Giulio De Leo, PhD, “this project will allow us to investigate the human and environmental determinants of parasite transmission and improve our scientific understanding of the expected future distribution of schistosomiasis risk in Brazil.” With this understanding, municipalities can be better informed about how they treat their land and environment.

“This research provides the opportunity to connect with an awesome Brazilian team from both academic and public health sectors to study how climate change and land use change might affect schistosomiasis, and to prevent disease emergence and expansion before it happens,” said Erin Mordecai, PhD, one of the primary investigators for the research. 

“The impacts of climate change are currently compounding with the effects of dam building and other environmental threats to make schistosomiasis an emerging challenge,” said Sanna Sokolow, PhD, DVM, another one of the researchers. “Schistosomiasis is a debilitating disease of poverty that is ultimately preventable with medical tools working together with good environmental management.”

Primary investigators: Giulio De Leo, Erin Mordecai

Research team: Susanne Sokolow, Andy Chamberlin, Thiago De Almeida Pereira, Kaitlyn Mitchell, Julie Pourtois, Roberta Lima Caldeira, Roseli Tuan, Miguel Vieira Monteiro 

The Political Economy of Environmental Externalities and their Impacts on Health: Evidence from Crop Residue Burning in South Asia 

Politicians have an obligation to protect the wellbeing of their constituents, and residual crop burning in south Asia is a major contributor of air pollution, which we know leads to illness and premature death especially in vulnerable populations. This project seeks to better understand the political and economic dynamics of crop residue burning by studying detailed spatial data on administrative and political jurisdictions in India and Pakistan, two countries where air pollution has major health consequences for large populations. Once we understand how our political economy takes advantage of these inequities, we can better inform the policies that allow them, and influence policy change to better prevent disease. 

“To address the problem of air pollution at a macro level it is necessary to understand the nature of the political decisions leading to fight air pollution or to inaction,” said Saad Gulzar, PhD, the primary investigators for the research. “We hope that our research clarifies when and why politicians and bureaucrats do and do not enforce environmental regulations. We hope that our findings can help design rules and institutions that provide better incentives for achieving change.”

Primary investigators: Saad Gulzar 

Development and Testing of a Prehospital Maternal Emergency Obstetric Warning Score (MEOWS) in India 

Every year about 45,000 women die in India from pregnancy-related complications. For many of those women, there were certain indicators that could have provided an early warning that they were likely to become critically ill might, like the number of referrals they’ve had, the facilities they are taken to by Emergency Medical Services, or their socio-economic situation. This study aims to identify these indicators, use them to assess the risk of each pregnancy with a score, and then inform efficient transport to facilities with adequate care capacity for the woman’s needs. With this score, emergency medical service workers can quickly identify pregnant women who require a higher level of care, thus improving health outcomes for both mothers and newborns. 

“Health systems have improved in many LMICs, allowing women better access to care around the time of delivery,” said Dr. Peter Acker, one of the primary investigators for the research.  “Unfortunately, these systems are not always precise, frequently mismatching the needs of the patient and the resources of the facility. This imprecision leads to delays and preventable loss of life. We can change this. Getting the patient to the right location, at the right time, with the right care can save the lives of these women and their families, which are torn apart.” 

Primary investigators: Peter Acker, Matthew Strehlow, Sindhya Rajeev