Your Google searches and tweets might help forecast the next disease outbreak

It seems like yet another punchline for anyone joking about the past two years of pandemic life. But to scientists forecasting future disease outbreaks, it’s important data.

Scented candles began receiving an influx of negative reviews online in 2020. Dissatisfied customers proclaimed that some of the most fragrant, most popular products from famous companies like Yankee Candle had “no smell” or even smelled bad.

This wasn’t just a few bad reviews. The most popular scented candles sold on Amazon were receiving an average of 4 to 4½ stars before 2020, but over the course of that first year of the pandemic, the reviews fell by about a full star. Social media users mused about a link between these negative reviews and the loss of the sense of smell associated with COVID-19 infections.

When COVID-19 cases rose again at the end of 2021 due to the omicron variant, researchers noted another uptick in those negative “no smell” reviews.

Those negative online reviews are what Mauricio Santillana calls “breadcrumbs.” As people navigate the digital world, they leave traces of what is going on in their offline lives, explains the director of the Machine Intelligence Group for the betterment of Health and the Environment (MIGHTE) in the Network Science Institute at Northeastern. Those “breadcrumbs” leave a trail for researchers like Santillana to follow as they project potential future outbreaks of COVID-19 and other diseases.

If there are anomalies in online trends—a spike in Google searches for shops that deliver chicken noodle soup, a sudden flurry of Tweets about navigating a quarantining family member, or bad reviews on scented candles—it could indicate that trouble is brewing. So Santillana is creating machine-learning models to spot the anomalies, make sense of these clues, and create an early warning system for disease outbreaks.

By adding human behavior to the mix, “we’re creating an observatory of disease activity using different telescopes,” says Santillana, a professor of physics and of electrical and computer engineering who recently joined Northeastern from Harvard University.

Read more on [email protected]

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University.

Celebrating Asian-American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month: A community dialogue on AAPI in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Please join us for a community dialogue on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology!
The first half of the event will be a facilitated discussion of the 2021 paper by Nguyen et al., “Who are we? Highlighting Nuances in Asian American Experiences in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology”. The second half will include a panel discussion featuring:

  • Andy Lee, co-author; Ph.D. Student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Purdue University
  • Erin de Leon Sanchez, co-author; Ph.D. Student in Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at UC Santa Barbara
  • Dr. Seema Sheth, Assistant Professor in Plant and Microbial Biology at NC State University
  • Dr. Garfield Kwan, Post-Doctoral Student at Scripps Institute; NOAA Southwest Fisheries; Creator of Squidtoons

Mauricio Santillana

Mauricio Santillana, PhD, MSc is the director of the Machine Intelligence Research Lab in the Network Science Institute. He is a Professor in the Physics and Electrical and Computer Engineering Departments at Northeastern University. Dr. Santillana’s research areas include the modeling of geographic patterns of population growth, modeling fluid flow to inform coastal floods simulations and atmospheric global pollution transport models, and most recently, the design and implementation of disease outbreaks prediction platforms and mathematical solutions to healthcare. His research has shown that machine learning techniques can be used to effectively monitor and predict the dynamics of disease outbreaks using novel data sources not designed for these purposes such as: Internet search activity, social media posts, clinician’s searches, human mobility, weather, etc.

His original research and perspectives have appeared in journals such as Nature, Science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Science Advances, Nature Communications, and Nature Climate Change, among others. His work has been funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (National Institutes of Health, NIH), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and multiple foundations such as: the Johnson and Johnson Foundation, Ending Pandemics Fund,


Jessica Davis

Josh Erndt-Marino

Dakota Murray

Hana Bahou

My Name is Hana Bahou, I am a Senior Research Administrator at Network Science Institute – Northeastern University. I have been with Northeastern since to 2008 working on Research grants and Finance. I worked in the College of Science in the Physics Dept. for 5 years, then moved to Bouve College of Health Science – in the Dean’s office for 5 years, then was appointed at Network Science Institute since Sept. 2017 to present as Senior Research Administrator.


Omicron moves fast. Here’s what that means for the next few weeks.

If you think the omicron variant has swept throughout the world at a bewildering pace, that’s because it has.

Cases of this strain of the coronavirus have been doubling at a rate of two to three days—compare that with the roughly two-week doubling time of the Delta variant.

A virus that moves so quickly around the globe could spell disaster just as people are traveling and gathering for holiday and New Year celebrations. But the devil’s in the details when it comes to SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19. And scientists have learned a lot more details about this speedy strain in the two weeks since the World Health Organization labeled omicron as a “variant of concern.”

“The likelihood of a couple of rough months ahead is increasing, but it’s a mixed bag of news,” says Alessandro Vespignani, who leads a team of infectious disease modelers at Northeastern that has been developing a set of predictive models to project the future of the COVID-19 pandemic since early 2020. “It could be worse, and it could be even better if we get more reassuring news on the side of severity.”

Read more on [email protected].

Photo by Getty Images.

When will we know more about the omicron variant?

A new curveball has been thrown into the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic: the variant named “omicron.”

On Friday, the World Health Organization labeled the new variant of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, a “variant of concern.” And, with several more mutations than previous variants, omicron has sparked renewed worries about the future of the pandemic.

Those concerns arose because when scientists sequenced the genome of the omicron variant, they found that some of the mutations might be associated with increased transmissibility, while others might help the virus evade the immune response from vaccinations or previous infections. The emergence and detection of the variant in Southern Africa also coincides with a surge in cases in that region. That’s why the WHO immediately warned the world about this variant.

Read more at [email protected]

Covid-19 isn’t a ghost just yet. But it may be getting there.

The specter of the coronavirus loomed large at this time last year. Cases were beginning to rise heading into the winter, and a massive surge was still ahead. With no vaccines yet available to provide immunity to the virus, Halloween was a subdued affair, making COVID-19 the only ghoul in town.

But this year, Halloween is largely back, and the pandemic’s presence is becoming less spooky.

COVID-19 cases have been declining over the past month in the U.S. Since peaking on September 1, cases have plunged around 57 percent. And over the next six months, the outlook continues to be encouraging, according to projections by the Laboratory for the Modeling of Biological + Socio-technical Systems in the Network Science Institute at Northeastern.

But a COVID-19 retreat won’t be linear, says Alessandro Vesipgnani, director of the Network Science Institute and Sternberg Family Distinguished Professor at Northeastern. And the trajectory of the pandemic will depend on how the next six months play out, he says.

Read more at [email protected]

Brennan Klein

Dr. Brennan Klein is a postdoctoral researcher at the Network Science Institute, where he also received his PhD in 2020. His research research attempts to understand how complex systems are able to represent, predict, and intervene on their surroundings across a number of different scales—all in ways that appear to maintain the statistical boundary between them and their environment. This approach is used to study a range of phenomena from decision making, to experimental design, to causation and emergence in networks. He is currently working with Professors Alessandro Vespignani and Samuel V. Scarpino on a research examining the teleology of networks, or why there appears to be an apparent purpose or goal-directedness to the dynamics and structure of networks. He received a BA in Cognitive Science and Psychology from Swarthmore College in 2014, studying the relationship between perception, action, and cognition. Brennan makes art under the pseudonym JK Rofling (

Sam Scarpino

The research in our group spans a broad range of topics in complex systems and network science, including: infectious diseases, forecasting and predictive modeling, disease genomics and transcriptomics, outbreak surveillance, and decision making under uncertainty.

Louis Shekhtman

Dr. Shekhtman is a postdoctoral researcher in network science and the Science of Success at the Barabasi Lab. His research is interdisciplinary in nature, and is primarily focused on social networks. He has also carried out work related to public health, blockchain, infrastructure networks, viral dynamics, financial networks, and other areas.

He completed his undergraduate degree at Northwestern University in Physics and Integrated Science in 2013. He then moved to Israel to do a Ph.D. at Bar-Ilan University under Prof. Shlomo Havlin, which was awarded in 2020. Since Sep. 2019 he has been working with Prof. Albert-Laszlo Barabasi at Northeastern University.


When can we say that the COVID-19 pandemic is over?

It’s the question that has been on everyone’s mind since March 2020: When will the pandemic end?

For some, the concept evokes images of celebrations in the streets, hugging strangers, and a grand return to pre-pandemic concepts of normal for all. But, as we’re learning some 15 months later, there is not a sudden, clear “end date” to this traumatic pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 3.8 millionpeople worldwide, and counting.

Rather, the pandemic is likely to fade away from daily life as vaccination rates rise and COVID-19 cases continue to drop in response. But that won’t be a straightforward, uniform return to normalcy for everyone. How the final stretch of the pandemic feels will vary from person to person, and place to place. And it will hinge largely on two factors: vaccination rates and variants.

Read the full story at [email protected]