Focus on Faculty

Pejman Rohani

Pejman Rohani (Photos by Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA)

Pejman Rohani, UGA Athletic Association Professor in the Odum School of Ecology and the College of Veterinary Medicine, mentors students and conducts research that explores how infectious diseases spread and evolve. 

Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
I earned my Bachelor of Science degree from Manchester University and my Ph.D. from Imperial College at the University of London.

I’m the Georgia Athletics Association Professor of Ecology and Infectious Diseases at UGA, with a joint appointment in the Odum School of Ecology and the College of Veterinary Medicine.

When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?
I moved to UGA in 2002 from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Originally, I was drawn here by the exceptional reputation of the Institute of Ecology (now the Odum School of Ecology). When I visited Athens, I realized it would be a terrific place to live and to work.

What are your favorite courses and why?
My favorite course at the moment is the one I’ve developed most recently. It’s called “Evolutionary Medicine,” and it provides a different perspective on health and disease than traditional courses taught in medical school. The class aims to explain the evolutionary underpinnings for modern day ailments that result from changes in our physical environment, our lifestyles and our natural enemies, such as infectious diseases.

What are some highlights of your career at UGA?
The biggest highlight of my time at UGA remains my experience advising a graduate student by the name of Matt Bonds. About 15 years ago, an economics graduate student came to my office and asked if he could do a Ph.D. with me. I was confused – “aren’t you getting a Ph.D. in economics?” I asked. He said he was but desperately wanted a Ph.D. in the ecology of infectious diseases. He explained that his long-term plans were to understand the interplay between health and wealth. After a total of seven years at UGA, Matt had obtained two Ph.D.’s, one in ecology and another in economics. He is now on the faculty at Harvard Medical School and runs a non-governmental organization that is saving lives in Madagascar and Rwanda. Matt is a remarkable scientist and human being; I am proud to have played a small role in his story.

How do you describe the scope and impact of your research or scholarship to people outside of your field?
I use mathematical and computational approaches to understand how infectious diseases spread and evolve. An example of this might be: why are there are frequent outbreaks of mumps when we have an apparently good vaccine available? It is straightforward to think of multiple potential hypotheses (e.g. the protection the vaccine provides is short-lived, or the virus has gained mutations to evade our immune system), but establishing which idea is consistent with available data requires data science methods. The exciting aspect of this work is that once we have used models to establish the likely cause of mumps resurgence, we can use the same models to identify smart solutions for its control.

How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?
Teaching provides a wonderful opportunity to gain new and different kinds of knowledge. This in turn makes one a better scientist. For instance, as part of my evolutionary medicine class, I was learning about the population biology of cancer and the critical challenge of the evolution of resistance to therapy. I was excited to discover uncanny similarities to a problem infectious disease biologists routinely think about (resistance to antimicrobials, such as antibiotics) while also learning about how cancer biologists have developed different approaches to studying the problem.

What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
There are many goals that I have when teaching a class, including enthusing students for the material, effective communication of complex information and transfer of knowledge. However, I believe the most important quality that I hope to pass on is that of critical thinking—the ability to analyze a problem and weigh the evidence provided in support of a claim is something that will stand students in good stead throughout their lives.

Describe your ideal student.
Hardworking, curious and determined. Oh, and someone who laughs at my jokes!

Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is…
The Ecology Building has an interior courtyard. It is where much of the informal interactions and social events take place. I think it’s perhaps one of the key reasons why many of my colleagues also have become good personal friends.

Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…
I’m a road cyclist, I make loud noises on the electric guitar and I have a dangerous (and potentially expensive) fascination with fountain pens.

Community/civic involvement includes…
Being informed about local issues and making sure you are part of the solution.

Favorite book/movie (and why)?
My favorite book is “The God of Small Things.” It is a beautifully written novel, dealing with forbidden love. The storytelling is incredible, but I particularly enjoyed Arundhati Roy’s playfulness with language.

The one UGA experience I will always remember will be…
I don’t have a single UGA experience to highlight here, but the main thing I will always cherish are the accomplishments of the outstanding students and postdocs that I have had the good fortune of mentoring.