For this member spotlight, we welcome Shelly Bolotin, an associate professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and in the department of laboratory medicine and pathobiology at the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine. Shelly is also a scientist a Public Health Ontario and the director of the Centre for Vaccine Preventable Diseases, which aims to catalyze cutting-edge research and education that maximizes the health benefits of immunization for everyone.
Can you describe your research?
My research focuses on vaccine preventable diseases. We have effective vaccines for several infectious diseases, so my work looks at which groups in the population need to be prioritized to ensure they are protected. This kind of research blends laboratory work with epidemiology and public health: I spent almost a decade in the lab before doing a masters of public health so my work really brings those components together.
In the past, a large part of my research program has focused on serosurveillance, which relies on testing blood samples to draw conclusions about immunity or exposure to pathogens. Much of my work focuseson measles — one of the most infectious diseases and one that has a safe, effective and low-cost vaccine. Measles requires almost the entire population to be immune to avoid outbreaks. Right now, we’re seeing rising case numbers in other parts of the world, so it’s crucial that we identify what groups in Canada are not adequately protected so we can make sure imported cases don’t result in outbreaks here. I also research infectious diseases that have promising vaccine candidates in development, like respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) or Group B Streptococcus. My work in this area explores which individuals in the population have the highest burden of infection, who is likely to get severe disease if infected, and what is the best way to set up immunization programs for different groups to ensure they have the best possible access to vaccines. This type of research enables us to plan ahead so we’re ready once a vaccine is approved.
How did you become interested in infectious diseases?
As a kid, I really liked science because there was always an answer, I just had to find it. In undergrad, I took a first-year biology course (you know, the ones that have 1,000 students in them) and we did a unit on viruses. I was immediately hooked! I was mystified by the fact these tiny things that we can’t even see can change everything from individual lives to entire societies. Humans are smart, but viruses outsmart humans all the time — and the more we learn about them, the more answers we have about how to protect ourselves.
What’s the biggest challenge you face in your work when it comes to infectious diseases?
Vaccines are an amazing advancement in medicine that allows us to prevent infectious diseases before they occur. The challenge that we have faced (and continue to face) is understanding the evolving reasons why people may not get immunized. Just look at the latest report from UNICEF that showed 67 million children around the world missed some or all routine vaccinations between 2019 and 2021. Whether it’s due to vaccine access, confidence or complacency, we are seeing a resurgence of vaccine preventable diseases, like polio and measles. This is an important reminder that vaccines are only effective if we can get them into arms.
What do you hope to achieve through your research?
The overarching goal of my research is to minimize the impact of vaccine preventable diseases through an understanding of immunity on a population-level. Part of this work is coming up with innovative ways to measure gaps in vaccine coverage or immunity, to enable us to think ahead to predict and control the risk of outbreaks. We also do a lot of work on understanding immunity in mums and new babies, which can help inform immunization guidance in both groups.
What excites you the most about EPIC?
As we’ve seen time and time again, bringing people together from different disciplines helps us find more effective solutions to problems in infectious diseases. It’s wonderful that EPIC is helping facilitate this by connecting people from different academic backgrounds to do this work.
This also resonates with what we are trying to do at the Centre for Vaccine Preventable Diseases (CVPD). Our focus on interdisciplinarity means that we aim to produce trainees with multiple skillsets. This is uncommon in an academic setting, where depth is sometimes prioritized over breadth. It’s wonderful to see other groups taking a similar approach.
Can you tell us about the Centre for Vaccine Preventable Diseases?
At the CVPD, we focus on all aspects of vaccine research, from bench to bedside to the population, with the goal of increasing vaccine confidence and raising vaccine coverage. Our research spans everything from laboratory studies on immunization and diagnostics to the epidemiology of vaccine preventable diseases to equity, access, and hesitancy. For example, we want to understand who is hesitant and what we can do about it, which means thinking about these questions from a policy and communications perspective.
In addition to research, we have a very strong focus on interdisciplinary education, continuing professional development, communications and knowledge mobilization. CVPD supports a variety of learners, including undergraduates and graduate students, medical residents and post-graduates as well as allied health trainees. We are passionate about training the next generation of vaccine researchers and are working to become a trusted source for vaccine information.
What are you reading?
I am currently reading (well, technically listening to, because I am listening to the audio book) Thinking, Fast and Slow by psychologist Daniel Kahneman. This book dissects our two processes of thinking: instinctive and emotional versus logical and evidence-based. As a scientist I like to think that my brain gravitates to the latter, but this book is a reminder that for me and others, that is often not the case.