At the University of Mary Washington, Casey Howren ‘14 answered this question when she developed a computer program that uses mathematical formulas to predict the progress of global epidemics.
Meeting on a daily basis with her mentor, Mathematics Professor Leo Lee, to help guide her research, the mathematics and sociology double major looked at the current ways that the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization track epidemics, and she realized that she could improve the process.
Right now, those organizations track epidemics as they are happening. They follow how quickly epidemics spread in real time and then predict how they will continue in the future. Howren’s algorithm-based computer program takes this process a step further by predicting how an epidemic will spread from the first infected person before it ever happens. In the end, Howren discovered that her program may create more accurate results than current tracking methods.
As part of her research, Howren looked at several epidemics, including the H1N1 virus responsible for the 2009 pandemic, and how they could have affected the UMW student body without the help of vaccines. She discovered that the epidemic would have spread to nearly two thirds of the student population over the course of a year.
“When I came up with the hypothetical examples where I used the Mary Washington student body as the population, it made me see how relevant this type of research is – it’s not just research that is happening for the sake of being published. Instead it’s relevant in all of our lives,” said Howren.
And this is just the beginning of the rising senior’s research. According to Lee, this research has the potential to keep growing through exploring epidemic interventions like vaccines and education. Howren plans to present her findings at several conferences in Maryland and Virginia over the next year
“She hopes she will be able to show that mathematical models are important tools to predict the general epidemic process and establish the controlling strategies of communicable diseases,” said Lee.