Campus News

Charter Lecture exhibits the value of interdisciplinary research

Drake, Saunt discuss how their fields work together

Science and history may seem like separate fields of study, but they have more in common than researchers might think.

John Drake, Distinguished Research Professor in the Odum School of Ecology and founding director of the Center for the Ecology of Infectious Diseases, and Claudio Saunt, Distinguished Research Professor and Russell Professor of American History in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, discussed their own areas of research, as well as a project that brought their fields together, during the 2022 Charter Lecture, held virtually April 11.

“Interdisciplinary research is one of the hallmarks of UGA’s research enterprise, so I am delighted that this year’s Charter Lecture features research at the intersection of history and infectious disease,” said UGA President Jere W. Morehead.

Both Drake and Saunt were named Regents’ Professors this year, an honor bestowed by the University System of Georgia Board of Regents on distinguished faculty whose scholarship or creative activity is recognized both nationally and internationally as innovative and pace-setting.

Drake’s research combines evolutionary biology, ecology and epidemiology to develop new quantitative methods that reconcile theory and data, with applications for forecasting the trajectories of epidemics and mapping the distributions of infectious diseases such as COVID-19, Ebola and West Nile virus.

Saunt is widely recognized as one of nation’s foremost scholars of Native American history and a pioneer in the field of digital history. He is the author of four books that have been received with widespread acclaim, both within and beyond the scholarly community. His most recent book is “Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory.”

They are collaborating on interdisciplinary research on smallpox in early America—a project that brings together their expertise in infectious diseases and American history.

“We have overlapping interests,” Saunt said. “I’ve long been interested in the demography of early America and had launched a project to map the African, European and indigenous populations in the Colonial era, and John has expertise in population dynamics and species distribution.”

More recently, Saunt wanted to investigate the impact of smallpox on native communities and turned to Drake, whom he initially met at a Willson Center for Humanities and Arts event several years ago, to help move the scholarly debate forward. Together, they sought to draw on innovations in disease modeling to answer their questions.

“I thought that these are the kinds of abstract questions that we can use epidemiological theory to answer,” Drake said. “From experiments with these models, we have concluded that figuring out the basic, underlying demography of early American populations is really the key to understanding how much smallpox introduction shaped their decline.”

Drake also pointed out some of the similarities between the two fields. For example, both history and science are concerned with empirical evidence. Data, facts and observations are crucial in both areas, and, at their root, both historians and scientists are trying to figure out what happened.

Sponsored by the Provost’s Office, the Charter Lecture series was established in 1988 to honor the high ideals expressed in the 1785 charter that made UGA the birthplace of public higher education in America. The event was part of UGA’s spring 2022 Signature Lecture Series.

“Since 1988, we have brought leading voices from around the world to our campus for this lecture series,” said S. Jack Hu, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost. “Our Regents’ Professors exemplify the breadth and quality of research and scholarship at the University of Georgia.”