Winner of the 2023 Letten Prize

The Letten Prize Board awards the Letten Prize 2023 to Paula Moraga for her pioneering research ambitions towards early detection of epidemics and design of control strategies worldwide, through development of innovative and cost-efficient disease surveillance systems at finer spatial and temporal scales than currently available.

Paula Moraga is currently Assistant Professor at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Saudi Arabia, where she leads the Geospatial Statistics and Health Surveillance research group. She obtained her PhD in Mathematics from the University of Valencia, Spain, and developed an international academic profile through academic positions she held at various institutions in the US, UK, Australia and Sweden. Dr. Moraga’s research has provided comprehensive tools to national health organizations, allowing them to make the best use of their data to improve the health of their populations. Her research has directly informed strategic policy development in countries such as Malawi, Brazil and Australia. Further, dr. Moraga has implemented statistical methods in open-source software so that they are widely available beyond her own applications, and provided training courses to support researchers to develop sustainable solutions to local health issues. With a commitment for working with international experts to generate improved analytical tools for rapid disease outbreak response and for measuring epidemiological levels worldwide, Dr. Moraga’s efforts will continue to be significant for contributing to helping countries to reduce illness and death in their populations.  

Paula Moraga is interviewed by Science Journalist Andrei Mihai.

Aspiring to integrate new data sources to track disease at finer spatial and temporal scales than currently available, in her research proposal, Dr. Moraga aims to develop a disease surveillance system that augments the precision of traditional surveillance systems by integrating multiple digital and geospatial data sources. Tackling the delays of existing surveillance systems, the pioneering system developed by Dr. Moraga will support the critical early detection of epidemics and design of control strategies. The novel and interdisciplinary approach of her research, involving multiple data sources, will allow the detection of local outbreaks. Developing a flexible spatio-temporal modelling framework that enables disease surveillance in real time, this research has a potential to produce more accurate local probabilistic predictions of disease activity. Particularly useful in low- and middle-income countries, the system will be validated through monitoring dengue fever in Brazil through a collaboration with the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation and accessible by health departments worldwide, allowing them to respond swiftly and appropriately to public health threats. The committee recognizes the strong alignment of Dr. Moraga’s research agenda with the Letten vision, and with a potential for high impact especially in developing countries.  

In summary, Dr. Moraga’s previous efforts and current ambitions in research meet the criteria listed in the Letten Prize. She has developed strong collaborative networks with international experts, organizations and health departments, working towards the goal of early detection of epidemics and design of control strategies. Her work has already had an important impact on strategic policy development and will continue to have a positive impact across various regions worldwide. With a strong commitment to reducing inequalities and improving the health and quality of life of all populations, Dr. Moraga is a worthy winner of the Letten Prize 2023! 

Paula Moraga’s reaction to winning the Letten Prize.

Get to know Paula Moraga

Dr Paula Moraga has been a pivotal figure in pushing the boundaries of geospatial health research. She is a mathematician and data scientist at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia, where she leads the Geospatial Statistics and Health Surveillance research group.

Dr Moraga is committed to leveraging data to enhance health outcomes for multiple diseases and conditions. Her work has made a tangible difference in the real world–it shapes policies that lessen the burden of disease. She also opens the door for others. Her online teaching materials impact learning on a large scale and have inspired researchers from different backgrounds to do geospatial research. 

Dr Moraga’s passion for science and mathematics started when she was in high-school. Her father passed away when she was a child, but her mother encouraged her to study and work hard. Soon, she became the first person in her family to receive a university degree.

“In university, I discovered that mathematics, statistics and programming were not only fun but could be used to solve many real data problems and make better-informed decisions,” Moraga says.

She ended up starting a PhD in Mathematics at the University of Valencia, but she realized she didn’t have some of the epidemiological and biostatistical background that would have helped her tackle the problems she had taken an interest in. So was awarded a prestigious fellowship for studying her Master’s in Biostatistics at Harvard University. This proved to be transformative, as it exposed her to a variety of methods used to study a broad range of conditions, from infectious diseases to cancer.

From that moment on, Dr Moraga has been involved in multiple research projects and has held positions at Lancaster University, Harvard School of Public Health, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Queensland University of Technology, and University of Bath.

Her research focuses on statistical methods and computational tools for geospatial data analysis and health surveillance, such as approaches to understand spatial and temporal patterns of diseases, assess their relationships with potential risk factors, identify clusters, and quickly detect outbreaks. 

Her work has had a tangible impact. It has led to interventions to curb the spread of malaria in Malawi, and reduce cancer inequalities in Australia, where she contributed to the Atlas of Cancer, an invaluable resource for policymakers.

Dr Moraga knows that the people who have the data don’t always have the resources to work with it, so she uses tools like the R programming language, which is a powerful and freely available software for data analysis.

“I am a fervent advocate for open science and reproducible research. I have implemented statistical methods in open-source software so that they are widely available and provide benefits beyond my own applications,” she says. “I think this is a way to improve overall knowledge.”

Dr Moraga is part of the R Epidemics Consortium, a group of international researchers from several disciplines developing software for early detection of disease outbreaks. She helps provide training to health departments, mostly in low- and middle-income countries, so they can better utilize their data to make better-informed decisions. She also publishes training materials and software tools that enable researchers to analyze various types of data, ranging from cancer and infectious diseases to even air pollution.

She has also written an impactful book, Geospatial Health Data: Modeling and Visualization with R-INLA and Shiny, that has an online version under a Creative Commons license. The book describes cutting-edge spatial and spatio-temporal statistical methods to quantify disease burden, identify risk factors and measure inequalities. It also provides the necessary tools to design and develop web-based digital applications such as disease atlases that incorporate interactive visualizations to make disease risk estimates available to a wide audience. The book has been cited in works that address multiple disease and health conditions worldwide such as COVID-19, neglected tropical diseases, cancer, malnutrition, mental health issues and air pollution.

As for future plans, Dr Moraga aims to develop a disease surveillance system that augments the precision of traditional surveillance systems by integrating multiple digital and geospatial data sources. By combining traditional health records, digital data, climate and environmental data, she aims to develop a system that can produce local probabilistic forecasts of disease activity in real time.

She’s also looking at more unconventional sources of data. For instance, social media posts or Google searches, which abound in our modern society, are not produced for epidemiological research but can be used as health and environmental cues. This system will enable policymakers to make more informed decisions and lead to tangible improvements in the health and quality of life of people around the world.

“I’m working on statistical methods and computational tools that can be useful for public health surveillance,” she says. “These methods can be useful for improving the quality of life of the population which will be translated into improved human productivity and socio-economic growth.”

Throughout her career, Dr Moraga has had a significant impact both by conducting influential research, and actively supporting the community of researchers. Her work has not only advanced scientific knowledge but has also translated into tangible improvements in public health practices, by bridging the gap between academia and the world.

“I really enjoy working collaboratively as part of multidisciplinary teams.” she says. “The best part of being a scientist is the continuous learning, and it is very rewarding to be able to translate my research into action to contribute to improving our world”.

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