Tufts tackles Lyme disease in new interdisciplinary event

Tufts students participated in the Lyme Disease Challenge — a day of lectures, panels, discussion and competition designed to educate participants about the dangers of and potential solutions to Lyme disease — on Nov. 1. 

Alumnus and Trustee Hugh Roome (A’74, F’77, AG’74, FG’80, FG’80), the driving force behind The Lyme Disease Challenge and a Tufts alumni, wanted to create more opportunities for interdisciplinary programs and chances to form connections between Tufts’ various campuses.

He said the event brought together students from differing fields and allowed them to use their unique, specific skill sets to help solve the issue. The interdisciplinary focus allowed students from different schools to approach the multi-faceted problem of Lyme disease in unique ways, according to the individual’s area of expertise, according to Roome.

For example, a student from the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life could consider what policies to put in place to prevent the spread of Lyme disease, while Fletcher school students may focus on the international ramifications of the disease and medical students could try to create a take-home test for Lyme disease, Roome said.

According to Linden Hu, the vice dean for research and professor of microbiology at the Tufts University School of Medicine, Tufts’ long history with Lyme disease research makes it a natural fit for the challenge. 

Additionally, the issue of Lyme disease is particularly relevant to Tufts’ location, according to Roome. Lyme disease is particularly common in the northeast United States: many household pets and humans contract the disease, increasing parental concern over children’s well-being and whether some outside areas can be considered safe.

In recent years, Lyme disease has begun to spread at an increasingly rapid rate, according to Roome. Each year, there are around 300,000 cases of the disease, leading to significant health costs in the U.S., Hu said. In addition, due to factors such as global warming, Lyme disease has begun to spread from the Northeast to other parts of the U.S., making Lyme disease a national problem. Hu added that ticks have begun to carry additional diseases. These factors have increased the urgency of finding solutions to the impacts Lyme disease has on the daily lives of U.S. citizens.

The university-wide program began with a welcome by Roome and David Snydman, a professor of medicine at Tufts who pioneered early research in Lyme disease. The day continued with a keynote by Public Health Advisor with the Centers for Disease Control Amy Ullman, who discussed recent trends and challenges in Lyme disease research. The speech was followed by a series of panels taught by Tufts faculty that discussed how specific fields, such as education, policy, environmental sciences and ecology can approach the issue of Lyme disease and make an impact. 

Participants then entered small-group breakout sessions, depending on the student’s area of interest. Guided by coaches experienced with Lyme disease, students worked together to brainstorm and develop potential solutions and projects in order to stem the continued growth of the disease. At the end of the event, teams presented their ideas and received feedback from the larger group. Roome hopes that students “found something out about a disease that could affect them or their family.”

Robert Kalish, a rheumatologist currently running a Lyme disease clinic, believes that students can bring a unique, fresh and cross-disciplinary perspective to the issue. While great strides have been made on the issue, Lyme disease still remains mysterious, and students can play an important role in continuing important research, Kalish said.

Students who participated in the Tufts Lyme Disease Challenge are not yet done, however. On Dec. 1, teams will offer their proposals of a potential project to help combat Lyme disease. The top teams will receive cash prizes: two first place winners receive $1,000, second place $500 and third place $250. Winning teams can then submit budgets of up to $5,000 to make their projects a reality, according to the Tufts Lyme Disease website.