Michelle Birkett Awarded Grant to Use Simulation to Understand Health Disparities

Michelle BirkettA new R01 grant from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) was awarded to Michelle Birkett, Ph.D., of Northwestern University. Birkett is an Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing (ISGMH) faculty member and director of the Institute’s CONNECT Complex Systems and Health Disparities Research Program.

The grant supports Birkett’s project, which will use simulation modeling to understand HIV disparities among racial and sexual minorities in Chicago. The project joins researchers at Northwestern and the University of Chicago/Argonne National Laboratory. 

Because the drivers of infectious disease are complex, simulation modeling offers an opportunity to tease apart the intersecting individual, social, and structural pathways that fuel disparities, as well as identify prevention strategies to reduce inequity. A simulation model creates a digital model of particular aspects of the real world. Simulation models that accurately replicate population dynamics can provide vital information for the prevention and control of infectious disease, allowing researchers to understand potential patterns of transmission and identify effective targets for intervention. 

Birkett and her team at Northwestern will utilize rich data on the social interaction systems and physical spaces inhabited by racial and sexual minorities to extend chiSIMa powerful modeling framework that simulates the physical movement and daily interaction of 2.9 million Chicagoans. By simulating these movements of individuals, the research team seeks to understand disease outbreaks move,  which can then help guide intervention development. The flexible chiSIM system is currently being used to guide response strategies for COVID-19 in Chicago. 

“We often think of racism and homophobia simply as attitudes held at the individual-level. It’s harder for us to see and understand how these attitudes are systemichow they shape where we live, where we go, who we connect with, and what we’re exposed to. Simulation work like this allows us to quantify exactly how these attitudes shape real-world, large-scale population structure and, in turn, shape disease spread. That is the first step in creating public health strategies that are targeted toward the elimination of HIV disparities,” says Birkett.

Simulation models are often optimized for the “average” individual, and so they fail to incorporate information specific to racial/ethnic and sexual minority populations that are disproportionately affected by infectious disease. Once Birkett’s HIV simulation model is built, it will be used to test competing hypotheses regarding the etiology of inequities in HIV. It will also address how stigma may play a central role in determining population structureespecially sexual network structures of minority individualsby shaping the physical and online spaces individuals occupy. 

Birkett is the principal investigator on the R01 grant. Co-investigators include Patrick Janulis, Gregory Phillips II, and Noshir Contractor of Northwestern University and Jonathan Ozik, Chick Macal, and Nick Collier of the University of Chicago/Argonne National Laboratory. R01 grants are awarded to support specific research projects performed by investigators in their area of expertise.

Congratulations, Michelle Birkett!