‘A new standard’: The woman behind the Johns Hopkins COVID dashboard wins major prize

In the beginning it was a lifeline, an organized collection of facts amidst a maelstrom of coronavirus uncertainty and misinformation.

“It feels like this is going to be another day where it’s going to be a fight over everything while staring at the Johns Hopkins dashboard,” said a Michigan editor tweeted on April 13, 2020, along with a screenshot of the global death toll at that time: 114,983.

Almost two and a half years later, more than 6.5 million people have died from COVID-19, hundreds of millions of infections have been registered and Lauren Gardner, the Johns Hopkins engineer who led the creation of the university’s vaunted COVID-19 dashboard, has been recognized a grand prize.

On Wednesday, Gardner won the 2022 Lasker-Bloomberg Public Service Award. Past honorees include Doctors Without Borders and Dr. Anthony Fauci.

The Lasker Prizes, awarded by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation for achievement in medical science, are sometimes referred to as “America’s Nobel Prizes,” and many laureates go on to receive Nobel Prizes.

The dashboard “set a new standard for disseminating authoritative, real-time public health data,” the judges said, and “cut through the noise of misinformation and became the most authoritative and trusted source of information on the COVID pandemic.”

The COVID-19 dashboard: tracking a pandemic in real time

The dashboard was unveiled to the public in January 2020, when the majority of people in the US were still going about their business and only glancing at the spread of the virus in Wuhan, China.

Before the pandemic, Texas-born Gardner was an academic specializing in infectious disease modeling. She had returned less than a year ago from an eight-year residency at Australia’s University of New South Wales to accept a position as an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Whiting School of Engineering.

In January 2020, Gardner spoke to her graduate student Ensheng Dong, who had been anxiously searching for news about the family in China’s Shanxi Province. Gardner suggested creating a map to track the virus around the world. Dong built a website in a day and after a few adjustments it was live.

In the early days, as the two worked to manually import data, they envisioned the map as a valuable tool for a relatively small community of academics and researchers monitoring the spread of the virus.

Then the stay-at-home orders began to arrive. In their shock and confusion, people searched for reliable information about the spread of a virus that was turning their lives upside down. You found the Hopkins dashboard. As of March 2020, the website hosting the map, arcgis.com, had nearly 1 billion visits.

A woman sits at a conference table with a video screen on the wall showing Johns Hopkins' COVID-19 dashboard.

Johns Hopkins Professor Lauren Gardner has been recognized with the Lasker-Bloomberg Public Service Award for mobilizing her lab to rapidly develop the COVID-19 dashboard.

(Lasker Foundation)

In the absence of a steady flow of data from the US Centers for Disease Control or other reliable government institutions, and in the face of misinformation swirling around the internet, the tracker allowed policymakers, healthcare providers, and ordinary people to make responsible decisions.

“When I saw numbers increasing in the US and surrounding states, we began implementing procedures to virtually see and protect our immunocompromised patients,” said Dr. Michelle Rheault, pediatric nephrologist at the University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital. “While some days it was terrifying to watch, it gave me the knowledge I needed to get the job done.”

Gardner and her students knew work mattered. But they were shocked to realize how many people relied on it.

“It was all a surprise. We knew it was important. I knew the data was very valuable because I’ve always worked where we needed that kind of data and didn’t have it,” Gardner said. “But I guess I didn’t expect to be the only source for that.”

In addition to honoring Gardner, the foundation presented this year’s Basic Medical Research Award to Richard O. Hynes, Erkki Ruoslahti and Timothy A. Springer for discoveries related to integrins, a family of cell receptors that play important roles in cell growth and migration and signal.

Yuk Ming Dennis Lo won the Clinical Research Award for his discovery of fetal DNA in maternal blood, reducing the need for invasive and potentially harmful prenatal testing.

https://www.latimes.com/science/story/2022-09-28/lauren-gardner-wins-lasker-award-for-johns-hopkins-covid-19-dashboard ‘A new standard’: The woman behind the Johns Hopkins COVID dashboard wins major prize

Alley Einstein

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