On March 18, 2020, two days after CU Boulder shuttered operations due to COVID-19, Dan Larremore sent an email to some of the world’s leading infectious disease modelers:
“I am writing with an open offer to help.”
A mathematician and epidemiologist by training, Larremore and his lab had been busy studying the evolution of malaria, and social inequities in academic hiring. But with a deadly new virus sweeping the globe, the assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and researcher at the BioFrontiers Institute saw an urgent need to shift focus.
“I feel like there is no point in studying the ‘status quo ante’ if it no longer exists,” he wrote.
Fast forward two years, and the National Science Foundation this week awarded Larremore the Alan T. Waterman Award, the nation’s highest honor for early-career scientists, for research that has been instrumental in informing how COVID-19 vaccines have been distributed and helping convince policymakers to prioritize rapid testing.
At 38, he is one of only three U.S. scientists to receive this year’s award and the third CU Boulder faculty to ever receive it (following Nobel Laureate Eric Cornell in 1997 and Professor Kristi Anseth in 2004). It comes with a five-year, $1 million grant.
“It is incredibly humbling and easily the greatest honor of my career,” said Larremore.
An unlikely academic
Raised in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, Larremore knew little about academic research growing up. His grades at Lakewood High School were “unremarkable,” and he recalls “falling through the cracks” for a time as an undergrad at Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied chemical engineering. After a stint working for a medical device company, he briefly considered law school (he had a knack for the logic puzzles on the LSAT), only to be pulled aside by a family friend, who advised, “Don’t go to law school just because you did well on the entrance exam.”
“He said: Do something you love,” recalls Larremore, “something that challenges you.”
Taking this advice, Larremore applied to the master’s program in applied math at CU Boulder, unaware the department is among the nation’s best (currently ranked 14th in the U.S.).
“I never would have been able to come into a PhD program through the front door,” he said. “But after learning about the research that professors do, I was hooked.”
That led to a PhD in 2012. After postdoctoral fellowships at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Santa Fe Institute, he joined the CU Boulder faculty.
We have to make space for people who come to research late without having been steeped in it their whole lives. If people hadn’t given me a chance, I would not be in this position I’m in today.”
Antibodies and lockdowns
Larremore’s email that March day sparked a collaboration between researchers at Harvard’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, where he is now an external faculty member, and the BioFrontiers Institute, using cutting-edge mathematical modeling and ultra-fast computers to answer questions of global life-or-death significance.
With campus shut down, he worked nonstop for months from the kitchen table at his nearby apartment.
“Even from home, I could ask the computing cluster at BioFrontiers to run tens of thousands of simulations at once, go make some lunch, take the dog for a walk with my partner, and come back to find answers,” recalls Larremore. “It was like science fiction.”
First, Larremore and his team set out to develop more accurate assessments, through antibody testing, of how many people had already been infected. This mattered because a few early but flawed antibody studies suggested that number was already high, fueling calls for lockdowns to be lifted. Larremore’s statistical work, published in the journal eLife, showed how to correct those estimates, confirming that stay-at-home orders were still important.
A rapid test or a sensitive test?
As workplaces and universities looked to the future, another set of questions arose: How often should we test for the virus, and what’s better—an extremely sensitive COVID-19 test that can take days to get results or a less-sensitive test that can be turned around in minutes? In a seminal paper published in the journal Science Advances, Larremore’s team delivered an answer.
“We showed if you can get results back faster, that is actually more valuable in curbing the spread of the disease than the slow but sensitive test,” said Larremore.
The study helped to inspire institutions nationwide, including CU Boulder, to implement regular testing programs with fast turnaround times and to inform federal and state decisions to send rapid tests to every home.
Who should be first in line for vaccines?
Half a year before vaccine trials had concluded, Larremore and his students, including Kate Bubar, a graduate student in interdisciplinary quantitative biology and applied math, posed a new question: Who should get vaccines first?
Some proposed striving for herd immunity first, by giving vaccines to working-aged adults—less likely to be hospitalized or die but more likely to spread the virus.
But in a paper published in Science, Larremore, Bubar and their team concluded overwhelmingly that older adults and medically vulnerable people should be first.
“Had we tried the other path, we would have slammed into vaccine hesitancy much earlier, so we actually would have failed to stop transmission through herd immunity. And for our elders and grandparents—it would have been a horror.”
Applying lessons learned
Going forward, Larremore said he hopes to study how lessons learned during the pandemic could shape the trajectories of other infectious diseases. For instance, could widespread use of rapid tests for the flu sharply reduce its incidence?
He will continue keeping an open door in his lab for young scientists who, like him, may not fit the mold of a typical grad student.
“We have to make space for people who come to research late without having been steeped in it their whole lives,” he said. “If people hadn’t given me a chance, I would not be in this position I’m in today.”
Other winners this year include: Jessica Tierney, a paleoclimatologist at University of Arizona, and Lara Thompson, a mechanical engineer at the University of the District of Columbia. They will accept their awards at a ceremony during the National Science Board meeting May 5 in Washington, D.C.
“They have clearly demonstrated a superb record of scientific achievements by using creative and innovative approaches that have further strengthened basic research in their respective fields,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan in a statement. “We are grateful to all of our honorees for the vital role they play in advancing the scientific enterprise.”