Lone Simonsen: "I think we've got something at Roskilde University that might be a good model for universities in the future"

Epidemiologist Lone Simonsen became well known in Denmark during the COVID pandemic, but her research on COVID-19 is only one of several highlights in a long international research career. She now heads the PandemiX Center at Roskilde University, because if you want to work with an interdisciplinary approach, you can't get a better research environment than here”, she says.
Lone Simonsen
“It's a fact that the really cool research is often conducted at the intersection of disciplines," says Lone Simonsen.


Where do you feel you have made the biggest difference with your research?

- The most recent example, of course, is the research I have done at the PandemiX Center during the COVID pandemic. The centre is located at RUC, but is a collaboration across several universities. Among other things, I have modelled the consequences of super-spreading in collaboration with physicists at the Niels Bohr Institute. With COVID-19, only 10% of those infected effectively pass on the disease, while the majority infect very few other people. Our research showed that it was because of this characteristic that we could control the spread so effectively by shutting down society. Nobody had actually realised this before, and this knowledge was important, also in relation to future pandemics. Plus, after nearly 20 years, I now understand the success of controlling SARS in 2003. SARS was a super-spreading and frightening deadly new corona-virus that was eradicated that year and never became a pandemic.

- But I can also tell you about another highlight, which occurred about 20 years ago. At the time, I was working for the WHO, helping to map the use of needles for vaccines and other purposes in low-income countries. We found that a high proportion of hepatitis B and C cases were due to reusing needles, which spread blood-borne viruses quite effectively. This research led to the introduction of so-called auto-destruct needles in EPI vaccine programmes worldwide. These are needles that can only be used once, because they are made in such a way that it is not possible to draw them back again. I have been told that in this way, I have helped to save millions of lives. I don't know if that's true, but it was certainly exciting research, also because it was my first experience of working with an interdisciplinary approach and because it was an important global problem.

Why did you choose to do research at RUC?

- RUC and I are a great match because I want my research to be interdisciplinary. It's a fact that the really interesting research is often carried out at the intersection of disciplines – that's where you find new ways of approaching problems that none of us would have thought of in our own field. Our discovery of the consequences of super-spreading is a good example: I could never have done it without the physicists' model, and they would never have thought of doing this particular research without my insight into the biological phenomenon and the SARS mystery of 2003. That's how we work all the time here at PandemiX, and when you want your work to be interdisciplinary, RUC is just the best research environment to be in. I also think that I personally thrive best in a place where there is no distance to management and where you know most of your colleagues.

- And it's fun to come back here and help promote the university that has shaped me since the beginning of my career. In my own field, I hope I can help create a really good research centre, where we can train the next generation of epidemiologists so that we are better equipped the next time there is a pandemic.

RUC baggrundsgrafik

“At RUC, we have a kind of mentor model, where students work directly with researchers and do project work in a way that really prepares them for real life."

About Lone Simonsen

  • Researcher in the epidemiology of infectious diseases, her approach lies in the field between mathematics and biology. She has researched past pandemics and used statistical and mathematical models to understand their spread patterns and mortality. This knowledge can be used to understand and control the current pandemic, as well as future pandemics.
  • She started studying medicine, but found the form of study uninspiring and she applied instead to RUC, graduating in biology and chemistry in 1985. She took a PhD in population genetics in the US, and at the age of 32 became a disease detective at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the US. Later she worked as an epidemiologist for WHO and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), before moving back to Denmark in 2014 and joining RUC in 2018.