All in: UTRGV prof charts behavior during pandemic

Elena Quercioli, assistant professor of economics at the Robert C. Vackar College of Business and Entrepreneurship at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, is shown with her two rescue dogs, Valentine (left) and Sebastiano. COURTESY PHOTO

Elena Quercioli’s life’s work lies at the intersection of economics and epidemiology in a field known, as a matter of fact, as “economic epidemiology.”

As with all serious studies of economics, it’s complicated. But for over a decade the assistant professor of economics at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley Robert C. Vackar College of Business and Entrepreneurship has dedicated herself to perfecting a modified Susceptible, Infected and Recovered (SIR) epidemiological model that — using game theory — incorporates rational, strategic human behavior to produce a model that’s actually useful in helping humanity.

Quercioli, a native of Pisa, Italy, who joined the UTRGV faculty in 2016, aims to come up with a model founded in scientific data and theory that accounts for virtually every dynamic of human behavior during a pandemic, a model that ultimately will inform policies to contain future outbreaks and save lives. The alternative is “guessing or going blindly into a pandemic, not knowing what’s going on,” she said.

Quercioli actually began the research in 2006 with University of Michigan economics Professor Lones Smith, when Quercioli was teaching economics at Tulane University. Then the work focused on “counterfeit money, contagion and crime,” she said. In 2009 the research was directed toward the H1N1 pandemic.

“We wrote a paper and never submitted it because we wanted to improve it,” Quercioli said. “It’s still a working paper, and we worked on this for another eight or nine years.”

With the help of an army of graduate students and research assistants, she spent five years collecting county-level infection data from 51 state health departments, resulting in a trove of data. Quercioli was also engaged in other research projects, but when COVID-19 hit she and her colleagues turned their attention back to the modified SIR in a serious way.

“We realized that this could be our moment to get this out, because we’ve been working on this for much longer (than anyone) in economics,” she said. “We had the right model that incorporates behavior, and we think behavior matters. There’s no cure, so what people do is the only way not to get it. And when it comes to behavior, game theory rules. It’s the one subject that is all about behavior.”

Quercioli is going full speed ahead with five co-authors from around the United States and one in Singapore on a short paper to be followed by a longer one once certain econometric issues are sorted out. It’s all about making the world a better place and, ideally, making an original contribution to the science of economics, she said.

“That’s why I’m dedicating my entire life to it,” Quercioli said. “Even my colleagues laugh when I say I want to write earth-shaking papers. And they take forever. Like this one takes 10, 12 years. This is who I am. There’s nothing I can do about it.”

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com