How are droplets related to disease transmission?

Lydia Bourouiba, a physical applied mathematician at MIT, takes us through the anatomy of a splash.

Vocabulary: fluid dynamics, disease transmission, contamination, image analysis, data collection

Next Generation Science Standards: CC1: Patterns, CC2: Cause and Effect, SEP6: Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions

Common Core State Standards: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.7.8, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9–10.8

What happens to a droplet once it hits the surface of a leaf? What about while that droplet is moving through the air?

Bacteria and viruses hitch a ride inside droplets of all kinds — sneezes, raindrops, even toilet splatter. By reviewing footage of different types of drops, applied mathematician Lydia Bourouiba records and measures where they disperse in order to better understand how diseases spread. Watch how Bourouiba designs tests — some inescapably humorous and awkward — to study infectious disease transmission.

Downloadable version of the video.

Print the video transcript.


  • What are the potential problems with only relying on human reporting to track disease transmission?
  • How does Dr. Bourouiba’s research demonstrate interactions between society and science?
  • There were already studies on splash droplets from toilet bowls before Bourouiba began her research. Why is her research contribution important?
  • Bourouiba said that hospital ventilation systems are not designed to prevent transmission. What evidence supports her claim?
  • Based on information from Bourouiba’s research, make recommendations for how hospitals could be designed differently. (Look into more research from the Bourouiba Group

Activity Suggestions

Additional Resources

Want to hear more about toilet splash zones? Check out Lydia Bourouiba’s interview on The Anatomy Of A Splash.

Want to know more about the fluid dynamics of disease transmission? Check out more studies from the Bourouiba Research Group at MIT.