Using Math to Predict Disease

Hanna Reed, UCF math student


A UCF student is in Knoxville, Tennessee, combining math and biology to research mosquito-borne disease.

Hanna Reed, a mathematics major, accepted the National Institute for Mathematical and Biology Synthesis’ highly competitive Summer Research Experience for Undergraduates. Reed heads to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville to work on a biology project. Reed has experience with interdisciplinary research. She’s been working with Associate Professor Zhisheng Shuai to mathematically model phenomena such as how disease spreads.

“It’s really interesting working with math models,” Reed said. “You can describe a process with math and figure out other things you couldn’t before.”

Reed explains what math models can do with an example of how the influenza virus spreads. She says you begin with different populations: people who are susceptible to the flu, infected by the flu and people who have recovered from a strain of flu. Working in a lab, Reed can trace contact rates, duration of infection and recovery. Using math, Reed can show how the flu moves through susceptible people, to infection, and to recovered people.

“By using the biology of what happens with the flu virus, we can figure out the rates, contact rates and duration of infection and recovery,” Reed said. “If we incorporate quarantine or vaccination you can model that too, and answer questions like ‘How many people do we need to vaccinate for the flu to stop?’”

Last year, Reed studied the modeling of cholera with a team of undergraduate and graduate students, under the guidance of Shuai. The team studied the cholera outbreaks in Haiti, taking into to account the impact of educational intervention regarding sanitation and hygiene. The team presented their findings at the 2017 MMA Mathfest in Chicago, Illinois.

The skills Reed learned at UCF are what granted her the opportunity to spend her summer researching mosquito-borne illnesses and mosquitos’ response to environmental factors. She will work with Suzanne Lenhart, an applied mathematician, and Rebecca Trout Fryxell, an entomologist.

“You have to work with biologists, computer scientists and mathematicians to get a thing that’s going to work,” Reed said.

Mosquitos can be infected by a bacterium that changes the mosquito’s immune system, almost like a parasite, but it can benefit the environment by creating an accessory to the bug’s immune system, preventing it from coming infected with Dengue or Zika. If biologists and mathematicians can come up with how to best infect mosquitoes with bacteria, there is a chance there could be a decrease in mosquito-borne illnesses.

“People have been doing this in some places like Australia and Vietnam where they’ve released mosquitoes into the environment,” Reed said. “They’ve seen a decay in mosquito-borne illnesses because of it.”

When Reed returns to Central Florida she will graduate in August, and begin teaching at a local high school.

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