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Shelly Bolotin to Head Centre for Vaccine Preventable Diseases

January 28/2022

By Heidi Singer

Shelly Bolotin has been fascinated by infectious disease all her life – first the biology of it, and then the profound way social, economic and other human factors drive its spread.

“Viruses are smarter than we are —  that blows my mind,” says DLSPH’s Associate Professor of Epidemiology. “But then we have this tool, vaccines, that isn’t always fancy or expensive but is one of the most effective public health interventions in the history of the world. Working to improve vaccine science allows me to make the biggest impact I can.”

Bolotin sees unprecedented opportunity in this moment to move vaccine science forward – when scientists have the world’s attention — using knowledge gained in the rapid development and deployment of COVID vaccines.

And now she has a larger platform from which to contribute. Bolotin will become director of DLSPH’s Centre for Vaccine Preventable Diseases (CVPD) on March 1, when she will move from her current role for Public Health Ontario to a full-time teaching and research position at DLSPH.

She replaces Prof. Jeff Kwong, who stepped in temporarily after CVPD founder, Prof. Natasha Crowcroft, departed for the World Health Organization.

An expert on measles vaccination, Bolotin was working at PHO and teaching epidemiology at DLSPH when the pandemic hit. She quickly pivoted to become PHO’s Lead on COVID-19 Serosurveillance. She has been working long days leading Ontario’s efforts to understand population immunity to COVID-19 ever since.

Where others despair at the misinformation circulating about the pandemic, Bolotin sees opportunity in the enormous uptick of public interest in epidemiology. As a deeply interdisciplinary centre, she believes CVPD can improve people’s understanding of the importance of vaccines.

“I’d really like to explore the fundamental need to integrate scientific literacy into our population,” she says. “COVID has shown the public can learn a lot about vaccinology – it makes me so happy that people know what a reproductive number is. There’s the potential to capitalize on that, which helps with disinformation.”

Bolotin studied Microbiology at McGill University before returning to pursue a Master’s in Virology and a PhD in Microbiology, both at U of T.  It was during a postdoctoral fellowship at PHO that she began to understand the importance of public health in vaccine science.

“Instead of only being concerned about a test being positive or not, I realized who the person was, their age, where they lived, was just as important to their health status. I began to really understand the need for equitable approaches.”

She traveled to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to complete a Master’s in public health. But a decade ago, that move got a mixed response. “Some people thought I was turning my back on lab science when my intention was to bridge both worlds,” she recalls. “It took a long time for the idea to gain traction.”

Today, the importance of interdisciplinarity is better recognized in the health sciences; and Bolotin is most excited about leading a centre designed to draw together disciplines from the lab sciences, social sciences and even farther afield to help address thorny problems like vaccine hesitancy.

“I think there are a lot of unanswered questions about why individuals don’t get vaccinated and it’s really important to tease out those groups to know how to engage with each. There are those who lack access, especially for equity reasons, versus those who are hesitant because they’re seeing misinformation or have difficulties trusting government or industry,” she says. “A really big part of addressing hesitancy is understanding which individuals belong to which group and what works to reach them.”

She is also eager to help answer major questions around vaccines and COVID immunity. “The CVPD has the opportunity to work with hospitals, government and other stakeholders to understand differences in vaccination rates and immunity between groups,” she says.

Bolotin, who will remain at PHO part time, is also looking forward to teaching more.

“I love teaching at DLSPH and I really look forward to the opportunity to expand my teaching with courses about vaccines and creating a new focus at DLSPH that wasn’t there before,” she says. “I want to set up education and training in vaccinology. Training the next generation is going to be a huge focus for the CVPD.”