Janey Messina

Janey first joined SoGE in 2016 as an Associate Professor, with a joint appointment in the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies. Prior to this, she had been a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Zoology since 2012.

Her research interests span all aspects of human health, including non-communicable diseases and wellbeing, with a particular focus on the spatial epidemiology of infectious diseases. Spatial epidemiology as a discipline aims to describe and analyse the distribution of health outcomes in relation to spatial determinants, and much of Janey's work has focussed on vector-borne diseases like malaria, dengue, and Zika. Her work requires her to collaborate with public health and environmental scientists, as well as economists and policy-makers - a cross-disciplinary approach that is essential to address the challenges of a globalising world where human health and well-being are threatened by climate change, pollution, and pandemic diseases. Population-environment interactions and the ways in which humans are inextricably linked to the places they live has become an over-arching theme in her work.

Originally from Los Angeles, California, where she attended UCLA as a French major, her attention turned to biogeography purely by chance when she took an optional class on the subject during her first term. "It was taught by a professor with such infectious enthusiasm for the topic (Tom Gillespie) that I was inspired to take more classes in the department. Eventually, I claimed it as a second major and especially loved the classes I took in GIS (Geographic Information System). I loved the ability to combine quantitative data with visual analysis and mapping, and despite the steep learning curve, I felt rewarded by my new skills in a way that I hadn't with other topics."

After graduating from UCLA, she interned in Paris for a year to fulfil her dream of living in France only to realise that she missed being in an academic environment. "I decided to go for a Masters degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, due to its strong reputation in GIS research and teaching."

Here she was influenced by Sara McLafferty's quantitative health research, as well as Marilyn Ruiz's class on public health applications of GIS and was invited to participate on a project related to West Nile Virus in Chicago after a large outbreak occurred in 2002 and showed notable geographic clustering. "That's really when my focus on spatial epidemiology began."

Upon completing her Masters, she was convinced to pursue a PhD at the University of North Carolina, working with Mike Emch, a leading health geographer.

"Moving to North Carolina was a wonderful decision, partly because I fell in love with Chapel Hill and bluegrass music, but also because working with Mike Emch and his other PhD students was so rewarding. I also had the chance to meet Melinda Meade, whose human disease ecology theory has greatly influenced my work, and collaborate with researchers in the UNC Gillings Public Health School, namely Steve Meshnick, who was a leading malaria researcher."

"Being a PhD student was great overall, with the excitement and stimulation of meeting others who were pursuing their research interests in an array of fields. That said, it can be a real struggle to be the manager of your own time and learn to be deadline-oriented. There can be days where you feel like you haven't done enough, and others where you couldn't possibly do more, but it's all good training for juggling the demands of an academic career! I was also introduced to the feeling of impostor syndrome at this time - being around so many intelligent people all the time can make you feel inadequate. I'd love to say I found an easy solution, but I think it's just about feigning confidence! I also nearly quit the PhD programme in my third year due to a personal struggle with depression, and I will always be thankful to Mike Emch for talking me out of it and giving me the time I needed to recover."

Through presenting some of her PhD work at conferences, Janey met researchers from Oxford's Zoology department, where she eventually accepted a postdoctoral researcher position to study the global spread of dengue in 2012 as part of Simon Hay's Spatial Ecology and Epidemiology Group. "Simon challenged me to new levels and I have him to thank for many research projects and collaborations that have followed on from that postdoc."

When her postdoc ended and an Associate Professor position was advertised in SoGE and OSGA, Janey seized the opportunity. "I came to think of Oxford as my home and am grateful that SoGE and OSGA provided me with the opportunity to stay around and return to my academic 'roots'."

Although she continues to collaborate with a several people in Zoology, she has enjoyed exploring avenues for collaboration with geographers and social scientists working in complementary areas related to human health.

"My favourite thing about being in a geography department is the truly interdisciplinary nature of the work that goes on, and the ability to pursue lines of inquiry that might not be considered pure or traditional epidemiology/public health, for example. I have always loved studying people and the world we live in through a spatial lens."

In November 2020 Janey was named on Clarivate's annual Highly Cited Researchers List, which identifies researchers who have demonstrated significant influence in their chosen field or fields through the publication of multiple highly cited papers during the last decade. This was the result of over 15,000 citations for 40 peer-reviewed publications, several of which are in high-impact journals such as Nature, Nature Microbiology, and the Lancet.

"The most highly cited paper I have been a part of, The global distribution and burden of dengue (Bhatt et al., Nature, 2013), was a hugely collaborative effort that I contributed toward during my postdoc. Seeing all the work we put into that paper come to fruition and get published in a high-impact journal was exciting for all of us, and I'm certain it's the main reason I've made the Clarivate List! I am also particularly proud of The global distribution and prevalence of Hepatitis C genotypes (Messina et al., Hepatology 2014), and Global spread of dengue virus types: mapping the 70 year history (Messina et al., Trends in Microbiology 2014) because I think they both nicely showcase the added value of meta-analysis of published data."

"If you told me when I started out at UCLA as a French major that I would end up being a health geographer and lecturing in statistics, I wouldn't have believed you! I think the key for me was to always seize opportunities to pursue what was truly interesting to me, rather than having a set plan. Geography and the social sciences in general are the perfect place to foster research that can better the wellbeing of humans and the world we inhabit."

Janey continues to work on research related to arboviruses through CADDE, Humbug, and the Oxford Martin School Programme on Pandemic Genomics. This year, she will begin research on COVID-19 and wellbeing in UK university students, providing an opportunity to bridge her interests in infectious disease research and wellbeing.

"Having focused thus far on statistical modelling of disease distribution and spread itself, I am hoping that the work on COVID-19 and wellbeing will open up new opportunities for studying the effects of infectious diseases on mental health, as well as the unequal effects of infectious diseases on certain segments of society."