Auston Manoja “Marm” Kilpatrick (‘90), now professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) and an internationally recognized expert in infectious diseases and their emergence, showed his love for nature and intellectual inquiry at an early age. As his eldest sister, it was my job to watch over him and the other children, and I could always find him roaming the Mount Madonna forests and fields with friends, collecting snakes, lizards, frogs, large spiders, tarantulas, and, even, scorpions. Or, I would find him reading his copy of the Guinness Book of World Records, memorizing and then recounting the records of both human achievements and the extremes of the natural world to anyone who would listen. Sarada Diffenbaugh, co-founder and former head of Mount Madonna School (MMS), and currently the president of the MMS board of directors, remembers having Marm in her combined fourth through sixth grade class, where she identified the need to put him in advanced algebra with the older students. In his high school years, my “little” brother shot up in height to 6’2” and was an accomplished volleyball player.
Marm attended MMS from the time of its founding in 1979 as an elementary student, until he graduated in 1990.
After earning degrees in mechanical engineering and philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles, graduating magna cum laude, and a master’s in mechanical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Marm worked in Silicon Valley as an engineer, designing robots and other automation equipment. After one year he decided to switch careers because, while he found engineering puzzles to be challenging and engaging, the work environment was primarily an office or manufacturing floor. Also, he didn’t personally find the career options morally compelling. Instead, he decided to pursue a career where he could spend more time outdoors and study topics that intrigued and moved him. In the field of biology, he found that his advanced mathematical background was a rare asset and it was this that allowed him to enter graduate school with otherwise relatively little biology experience. He left industry to achieve a Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Some readers may know his name from present-day COVID-19 print and news articles and virtual talks. Currently, Marm is part of a UC system-wide task force that is assessing best practices for in-person, on-campus activities for 2020-21. At UCSC, he is participating on two teams developing high capacity testing for COVID-19 infection and antibodies. In Santa Cruz County, he is part of the surveillance team of the department of health; and is the scientific advisor to the Economic Recovery Council, a partnership between the Community Foundation and the department of health to facilitate a safe, phased, and enduring reopening of the local economy in alignment with state criteria and Governor Gavin Newsom’s Pandemic Resilience Roadmap.
Marm also serves as an advisor to Head of School Ann Goewert and Sarada Diffenbaugh, through all of their efforts to create at MMS a learning environment that is safe for the students and faculty.
For those wishing to know more about COVID-19 and how to make informed personal and professional decisions, Marm has become an important resource. I spoke with him recently, with the intention of better understanding how he came to be in this advisory role, to learn more about the rise of the pandemic, and to gain a possible outlook on disease outbreaks in the future.
Tell me about the history of your involvement in COVID-19. How did you come to define your role, and how has it evolved?
I first learned of the virus from the earliest news reports. After the initial three to four weeks’ flurry of news and science, I quickly realized the colossal scope of the challenge, and I started reading all of the news articles and what science could be found in those early days. In January and February, I recognized the importance of Twitter as the place where most of the dialogue between scientists was happening. The science around COVID-19 was taking place so quickly that only Twitter met the need for the fast-paced communications between researchers across the continent and around the world. I began following the main scientists who were sharing their perspectives, their studies that were similar/related, and, soon, pre-prints.
A colleague at UCSC, Chris Wilmers, was the first to suggest that I be a resource for the local community. Given the enormity of the challenge, public health officials were too busy to follow and keep track of all the emerging science. Although not an expert in immunology, my disease ecology expertise, understanding of how to interpret new studies, along with my ability to break down the science into layman’s terms have allowed me to help communicate science to others.
Since March, I’ve been able to be of support through helping county health officials, doing science communications via Twitter, and interviewing with reporters in order to get the important messages out to the general public. I’ve also been supporting the UCSC team that is now performing a substantial portion of all the testing in Santa Cruz County.
A speaker cancellation gave me an opening to offer a talk in May as part of a UCSC seminar series. That experience showed me the need for the information to be presented differently from how the media sensationalizes it, with more synthesis and focus on the most important things individuals should know in order to make choices for themselves, their families, and their work. The seminar led to another talk, the Kraw Lecture, for which 3,000 people registered from throughout the U.S. Again, this emphasized the vital need for public communications and outreach.
Our county and state weren’t alone in being unprepared for the pandemic, lacking the resources and personnel to deal with the day-to-day situations and the expertise to evaluate the big picture and set a strategy toward the longer-term goals. Surprisingly little data is being generated in the U.S. on the efficacies of practices, including closure of business sectors. Anecdotal reporting has led to enormous confusion. There was – and continues to be – a need to figure out the most effective responses.
Through conversations with Gail Newel, health officer for Santa Cruz County, I realized that I could help with some simple analyses and communication of key scientific findings to area residents. From the onset, the county was swamped with managing the infections, including logistics to prevent further outbreak – and there was little time to analyze data to understand where the transmission was happening.
In early April, I was introduced to Susan True, CEO at Community Foundation Santa Cruz County. I joined her efforts, offering strategic support to local businesses and nonprofits as a scientific advisor. We wrote an Op-Ed for the Santa Cruz Sentinel, gave webinars, and crafted messages for our community to emphasize that, if people chose safer ways to interact only a few businesses would need to close down. Susan and her team have played a vital part in leading the response to COVID-19 throughout Santa Cruz County.
On this topic, how do you as a scientist weigh the decisions about prioritizing the economy vs. disease control? You have a pinned tweet on your Twitter profile: “Is re-instituting lockdowns necessary to stop rapidly rising #COVID19 cases globally?Answer: No. But we’re failing at 2 other approaches, due to poor messaging, human behavior & limited public health capacity. Deaths & lockdowns are unnecessary but we’ll have both again.”
This is not an either/or: it is absolutely possible to balance public health and personal safety with keeping businesses open. The greatest challenge is that most of the cases are not coming from the open businesses – not from restaurants or gyms (bars and music venues are still unsafe). The conundrum is that there is a disconnect in people’s understanding of how to behave: they think that, because restaurants are open, then it’s also okay to host a dinner party at their house. Most COVID-19 transmission is within households, but it is sustained by close contact between members of different households that choose to come together.
We need to communicate that restaurants can be open ONLY if people only gather outside with space between them. And we need to repeat this messaging multiple times per week. I am hoping we’ll go in this direction soon. Across the state, and throughout the country, we need a massive outreach campaign, with messaging from employers to employees, businesses to their customers, and with help from influential or famous people. I have suggested that all Santa Cruz County businesses communicate with their employees in this way, as we’d reach at least a third to half of all Santa Cruz residents. Then, hopefully, people will say to themselves, ’I can keep my job if I make safer individual decisions.’
What have you learned from your in-the-trenches experience so far? And what can we do now that could have a big impact later?
I learned early on that no one else was going to be fulfilling a vitally important role, and that I had a chance to contribute. In hindsight, I realize that I wasn’t assertive enough in reaching out and communicating the science; my thought was that someone else would step up. But then I soon recognized that others either didn’t have the time or expertise to do so. The moral of the story for me: have more confidence and act as soon as it’s clear what is needed. Timely measures earlier on would have served us well now. This virus spreads VERY fast, whereas cases decline more slowly.
You’ve mentioned before that scientists have shown that new diseases are spilling over into human populations all the time so a pandemic like this was expected. Why didn’t the government or other entities not take the warnings seriously? Did we just not comprehend how a pandemic could actually affect our world?
Pandemic diseases are a bit like earthquakes. In California, we have earthquakes, but we don’t know exactly where and when. So, we make decisions on how much money to invest and how to spend it in order to mitigate the impact of those earthquakes, and the result is the building codes that are in place. Similarly, scientists have been studying the emergence of new diseases to understand what we can do to limit their impact. They have been working to develop a universal vaccine to address the impact of new flu viruses, and agricultural practices have been developed to reduce contact between poultry and wild birds (the source for many new flu strains).
A key challenge is: how do we prepare for a new pandemic when we don’t know what type of pathogen it will be or how it will be transmitted? There was a pandemic task force created by President Obama in response to the Ebola outbreak. It was reorganized and partly dissolved during the current presidency. Similarly, stockpiles of personal protection equipment (PPE) and other supplies have been amassed but not always replenished over time. N95 masks are a specific example. There was a federal stockpile of tens of millions of masks and some local stockpiles of tens or hundreds of thousands of masks. But masks, like other supplies, have a limited shelf life (in this case the shelf-life is five years, as the elastic can degrade). So, how many masks should be purchased and how often should they be replenished? The costs can be substantial and if the last pandemic was more than a decade ago (swine flu in 2009) and didn’t turn out to be especially deadly, one can see the case being made that limited funds should be spent on immediate needs for city infrastructure, roads, schools, etc.
Additionally, public health departments across the country have been gutted. And, we’ve been a bit lucky for a number of decades. A few pandemics, such as the 2003 SARS-CoV-1 (another coronavirus), were successfully controlled, which might have made us feel overconfident. This disease was approximately 10 times deadlier than COVID-19, but we were able to stop it early because people weren’t infectious until several days after they exhibited symptoms, and immediate symptoms allow us to control the disease by isolating sick people. Unfortunately, for the current coronavirus, people are infectious several days before they have any symptoms.
Do you foresee working with our government or other scientists to better address a situation like this in the future? Can you postulate what the next pandemic will be?
The challenge is similar to what I explained previously: the current pandemic has led to substantial funding for research with a huge focus nationally and internationally on this coronavirus. But how long will this last and will it prepare us for the next disease that appears? A previous example suggests we may be surprised again: West Nile virus emerged in 1999 in New York and spread across North America over the next four years, and it resulted in several thousand deaths per year for several years, and again in 2012. Initially, there were substantial funds allocated to local, state, and federal efforts to study and control the disease. But now, those funds have dried up and there are far fewer personnel controlling or studying West Nile virus and related diseases.
If we see a new pandemic caused by a respiratory disease in the next two to three years, we will be better prepared than we were nine months ago. But, what if the next disease emerges 10 to 15 years from now? Who will remember? The SARS/CoV warnings weren’t enough to keep us on our toes for COVID-19. If, for a moment, we consider an alternative reality… If we had different leadership in the U.S. at the start of the pandemic, might someone else have kept the taskforce in place? Would they have listened to the scientists, early on? In Germany (and many other places around the world), they had effective leadership that took an aggressive and effective early response. They’ve had 20-fold fewer deaths and are fortunate to have been able to return to much more “normal” life than we have in the U.S.
What are you noticing or identifying about our world, our culture, this country, and our local community that was not apparent to you pre-COVID-19?
There is a lack of trust in scientists – not a new observation, but a moderately innocuous situation pre-COVID-19; it’s easy to have this perspective up until you need science to save your life. U.S. leaders made this problem much worse. Scientists and public health officials have asked for moderately small sacrifices (e.g. mask-wearing, making social gatherings safer), but some individuals have taken the stance that doing so treads on their personal freedoms. The level of selfishness we have seen during this pandemic has been frustrating and disappointing to me.
It’s also surprising that many people don’t make better decisions. I initially thought this was because of a lack of knowledge, but it may be because of a disregard for the consequences. For example, some people with extensive education and information on the risks of COVID-19 transmission have attended indoor gatherings with large groups of friends. People aren’t happy with the lockdowns, but they’re also unwilling to change their habits.
On that challenging note, we’d better wrap up. What do you have for MMS audiences —our alumni, students, families, faculty, others — from your MMS experience that you found to be especially impactful in your life?
It is not enough to know the answers; we need to express them well. At MMS, I learned how to write. I remember one time, in Sadanand “SN” Ward Mailliard’s Government (now Values in World Thought) class, our sister Usha and I each submitted a paper based on the same topic. She got a higher score even though we presented the exact same information. SN told me to read Usha’s paper and, after doing so, I saw the difference in how it was written. SN taught me that it was not enough to just “know stuff,” but that it was equally important to present it in a compelling way. The perspectives we gained about the world were invaluable. I recently read SN’s letter about Congressman John Lewis (I didn’t meet him; that happened after my time), and it reminded me of our interviews in D.C. with former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, California Governor and U.S. Senator Pete Wilson, Senator Alan Simpson, and many others. We met with amazing, great people and learned the value of preparation, and that intelligent questions yield better responses along with more engaging experiences.
I also benefited enormously from the opportunity at MMS to go more quickly through subjects, especially mathematics. This enabled me to start college with a much stronger mathematics background, which made it easier to learn physics and chemistry and engineering.
Related to the MMS mission: something that is increasingly apparent is that we can learn math in abstract terms or learn it in the context of today’s problems. Applied math is more exciting and it is motivating to learn things when they matter. As an educator, I find that it is vitally important to make learning relevant to the current-day, to the students’ lives.
Also, with regard to self-awareness, it is important to know when you’re wrong and publicly admit it when you are. Throughout this COVID-19 learning experience, many scientists have admitted they were wrong, learned from their mistakes, and moved on.
The interesting thing about living a fulfilling life is that it is important to do things that are fun but also to help the world out a little bit. Balance this out. It’s good to contribute as much as you can.
About A.M. Kilpatrick, Ph.D.
Dr. A.M. Kilpatrick’s primary body of expertise is disease ecology: how factors influence transmission of diseases, including those transmitted between animals and humans. His studies include West Nile virus (mosquitoes, birds, humans), White-Nose Syndrome (bats), Chytridiomycosis (frogs), and avian malaria (infectious disease of birds that has devastated native bird populations of Hawaii). Other diseases he’s studied that originate in animals but can also be transmitted to humans include H5N1 avian influenza, H1N1 “swine flu”, Lyme disease (ticks, birds, mammals), and the SE Asian Nipah virus (bats).
He has published over 100 scientific articles in journals including Nature, Science, New England Journal of Medicine, Lancet, Journal of Infectious Diseases, and has been interviewed by ABC, NPR, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, SF Chronicle, Santa Cruz Sentinel, and many others.
Dr. Kilpatrick has earned many professional honors and awards. He frequently speaks at conferences and workshops, as well as universities and government organizations, including the U.S. Congress, where he testified in a hearing entitled “Current Challenges in Combating West Nile Virus.” He and Dr. Anthony Fauci were featured on the top of the agenda that day in October 2004.
 There are dozens of papers being posted to the pre-print servers every day, and dozens going to print (traditional). From https://asapbio.org/preprint-info: A preprint is a complete scientific manuscript that is uploaded by the authors to a public server. The preprint contains complete data and methodologies; it is often the same manuscript being submitted to a journal… After a brief quality-control inspection to ensure that the work is scientific in nature, the author’s manuscript is posted within a day or so on the Web without peer review and can be viewed without charge by anyone in the world. …Preprint servers allow scientists to directly control the dissemination of their work to the world-wide scientific community. In most cases, the same work posted as preprint also is submitted for peer review at a journal. Thus, preprints (rapid, but not validated through peer-review) and journal publication (slow, but providing validation using peer-review) work in parallel as a communication system for scientific research.
 A number of scientists and doctors in the U.S. and around the world, like me, stepped away from what they were doing before and put their full attention to addressing the pandemic. Scientists to follow on Twitter: Angie Rasmussen, a virologist in New York; epidemiologists, Natalie Dean, Adam Kurcharski, and Carl Bergstrom, who were working on infectious diseases and have completely shifted their focus to COVID-19.
 The underlying methodology being used for these tests is the same as that of the CDC, but the challenge that has arisen is that some of the chemicals vital to processing the tests are in short supply – so the UCSC team has chosen different chemicals not already being used by commercial vendors (the challenge to iterative test development in the commercial realm is that once the FDA licenses a test that uses specific materials, any changes necessitate new approval).
 Kraw Lecture Series, June 30, 2020, https://news.ucsc.edu/2020/07/marm-kilpatrick-kraw-lecture-covid.html
 The choice is ours during COVID-19, July 19, 2020, https://www.santacruzsentinel.com/2020/07/19/guest-commentary-the-choice-is-ours-during-covid-19/
 Twitter, @DiseaseEcology, https://twitter.com/DiseaseEcology/status/1272271134696673281
 One area of study is influenza viruses: a new pandemic strain has arisen from animals every few decades over the past century. The “swine flu” (H1N1) in 2009 was the most recent one; fortunately it was slightly milder than the seasonal flu virus circulating at the time. The 1968 “Hong Kong flu” (H3N2) killed an estimated 1 to 4 million people globally. The 1918 “Spanish flu” (H1N1) was the most severe pandemic in recent history, killing approximately 50 million and infecting 500 million people – about one-third of the world’s population at the time. Another example of a pandemic arising from animals is AIDS. (Note that this disease is caused by a very different type of virus that is transmitted in a very different way than influenza, sex rather than through respiratory secretions). Although the HIV/AIDS pandemic had a significant effect in the U.S. and continues to have giant impacts in some African countries, the drugs that have been developed for this disease have been hugely effective and have reduced the apparent threat of infectious diseases.
 The New Yorker, “The Coronavirus and the Gutting of America’s Public-Health System” https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/coronavirus-and-the-gutting-of-americas-public-health-system
 Notably, countries that did well in dealing with the current COVID-19 pandemic were affected by the 2003 pandemic: public health experiences then helped them to know how to react well now (ex. Vietnam, S. Korea, Japan).
 House Hearing, 108 Congress, Hearing before the Subcommittee on Energy Policy, Natural Resources and Regulatory Affairs of the Committee on Government Reform: https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CHRG-108hhrg98485/html/CHRG-108hhrg98485.htm