Sisters in medicine and public health honored for local and statewide efforts against COVID-19

In summer 2020, like universities across the country, Denison University was planning their return to campus amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. They reached out to sisters Alison Norris, MD, PhD, associate professor of Epidemiology in The Ohio State University College of Public Health, and Abigail Norris Turner, PhD, associate professor of Internal Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases in The Ohio State University College of Medicine. With their backgrounds in medicine, research and public health policy, the pair brought agility and adaptability to their response to the dynamic, multifaceted nature of the pandemic.

Each brought powerful contributions to the table. Dr. Turner’s expertise as an infectious diseases epidemiologist guided Denison’s approach to COVID-19 management, from data tracking and analysis, to health guidelines and containment strategies, to vaccine education. Dr. Norris, also an epidemiologist, employed her research experience in understanding how policies and culture shape behavior and health decisions to develop a framework for case investigation and contact tracing. The duo collaborated with Peter Mohler, PhD, interim vice president for Research at The Ohio State University and vice dean for Research at the Ohio State College of Medicine.

Expressing deep appreciation for their invaluable expertise and support, Denison University awarded each member of the trio with an honorary doctorate in May 2021.

“Denison, the state of Ohio and the wider world owe a huge debt of gratitude to Drs. Mohler, Norris and Turner,” says Denison President Adam Weinberg. “Locally, they helped Denison navigate through enormous challenges this year to successfully manage COVID-19 on our campus. They also demonstrated the importance and power of higher education, producing crucial research that is helping society understand and address a global pandemic.”

Their work with Denison was one of many critical COVID-19 projects that Dr. Norris and Dr. Turner undertook during the pandemic.

Dr. Norris helped lead Ohio State’s COVID-19 case investigations, contact tracing and testing program. She worked to condense complex epidemiological concepts into lay language, to ensure that leaders had a comprehensive understanding of multiple aspects of the pandemic when setting university policy.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is a multidimensional, dynamic issue that demands the experiences and expertise of many, including researchers, health care workers, students and social scientists,” says Dr. Norris. “These professions serve unique and equally important roles.”

Dr. Turner served on the Bexley, Ohio city COVID-19 task force, leading several seminars on the epidemiology of COVID-19. She is collaborating with Ohio State faculty to analyze student testing data. In summer 2020, she worked with the Ohio Department of Health to measure the statewide prevalence of COVID-19 in Ohio after the first surge of infections in spring 2020. Both Dr. Turner and Dr. Norris also advised their local school district on COVID-19 mitigation strategies.

Combining forces at the interface of medicine and public health for over a decade

Since 2007, Dr. Turner has published over 100 papers and has been awarded millions of dollars in federal funding for projects focused on the clinical, behavioral and immunological factors contributing to sexual and reproductive health in Columbus and around the world. Her passion lies in providing communities with the tools to properly gauge and address multifaceted public health issues.

“It is important to characterize the root causes contributing to poor health, so that stakeholders can form acceptable, effective long-term solutions,” says Dr. Turner.

An epidemiologist in infectious diseases and reproductive health, Dr. Norris has also contributed extensive research to her field. From studying the patterns of HIV/AIDs among migrant Tanzanian workers to helping define the reproductive health needs of rural Malawians, she has expanded her contributions beyond the United States. Dr. Norris notes that improved health outcomes rely on structural change, and that the key to recognizing inequities lies in placing greater consideration on social determinants.

Dr. Norris and Dr. Turner have published dozens of papers together. Prior to their joint work on COVID-19, some notable projects include their work with the Umoyo wa Thanzi (UTHA) project in Malawi that assessed factors associated with diminished health among individuals in this region, as well as the Ohio Policy Evaluation Network (OPEN), a research project launched in 2018 that examines how policies influence reproductive health equity within Ohio and surrounding states.

One reason for so many research partnerships is their complementary relationship.

“Alison tends to be the more public face of our projects, whereas I prefer to be behind the scenes,” says Dr. Turner. “She excels at laying out a compelling vision, and I manage the more granular aspects of logistics and implementation. She is excellent at connecting with key stakeholders, and is very community based. I love thinking through design, measurement and statistical analyses.”

“We do have some overlapping expertise, making what we bring to the table quite complementary,” says Dr. Norris. “This overlap allows for us to take over for one another when needed. Abby is very talented at condensing complicated problems into more digestible concepts, and can hold on to so many details at a time when carrying out projects. Our history of collaboration, and particularly our knowledge of each other’s strengths, was a huge advantage when rolling out projects like the statewide COVID-19 prevalence study in such a short period of time.”

The researchers have nurtured their supportive bond throughout the pandemic.

“COVID-19 has been tremendously devastating everywhere in the world, including here in Ohio,” says Dr. Turner. “It can be overwhelming for everyone engaged in fighting this pandemic, although the periods of darkness are also balanced against periods of gratitude and inspiration. The professional and personal relationship I have with Alison is an incredible gift, even more so with the stress and chaos of the pandemic. We can step in to support each other, smoothly share work and obligations, and most importantly, recognize when one of us needs a break or a boost. We are more functional and more productive because of the other.”

Dr. Norris has also found refuge in this synergy.

“My sister is very dedicated and at times laid herself out completely to the point of exhaustion, and I was able to step in and help,” says Dr. Norris. “The same goes for the other way around. For example, there was a stretch of months where COVID-19 contact tracing was all-consuming, and it was challenging to complete that work alongside my other responsibilities as a faculty member. To mitigate this heavy workload, Abby helped me by holding advising meetings with my doctoral students, freeing up my time to focus on the urgent work of COVID-19 containment.”

“It is a privilege to work with my sister, and it is a gift to find your closest colleague and closest friend in the same person.”