Olivia Prosper, assistant professor of mathematics, received a highly-competitive Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF). This multi-year, $470,000 grant will support Prosper’s work in mathematical modeling of infectious diseases.
Emerging infectious diseases are an inevitable part of our world. Mathematical models can inform scientific understanding of these complex and ever-changing systems, as well as public health policy. Prosper focuses on mechanistic models, which are models that describe key processes that drive dynamic, real-world systems. Coupled with empirical data, these models can be used to assess the efficacy or test hypotheses about the underlying biology.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored both the importance of mechanistic models and the challenges of implementing these models to inform policy,” Prosper said. “One of these challenges that spans disciplines is when there is a mismatch between the data available and the data required to inform the models and reduce uncertainty in the predictions.”
Prosper’s goal is to create a methodology to develop mathematical models that produce reliable outputs and measures of uncertainty. An integral piece of her project is a new education program targeting undergraduate students with unrecognized potential in STEM. The Junior Modelers Program, or JuMP, will consist of a series of educational modules to engage students in the fundamentals of mathematical modeling, coding, and visualization.
“I am targeting math novices, or students that come to college with little to no calculus experience,” Prosper said. “I want to challenge the idea that students have to come to college knowing math and calculus to be able to pursue degrees in STEM. I’ve seen a number of examples where that’s just not the case. Students who take college algebra can enter STEM fields; they just need to be encouraged.”
Undergraduate students in the JuMP program will hone their skills by working with epidemiological models related to the project. They will also contribute their creativity and unique perspectives as novice modelers with diverse backgrounds to promote model literacy to the public.
“A big challenge with scientific research is how to communicate it to the public effectively,” Prosper said. “Since I do research in infectious diseases, it’s really important to be able to communicate the work to a broader audience. Students with academic backgrounds that are different from mine and others in STEM will be able to help develop effective messaging.”
Prosper will work with her colleagues in the math department to recruit undergraduate students for the program. The educational modules will be paced according to the student’s learning preferences, allowing them to guide their own learning experiences. Students will also develop coding skills and learn how to visualize results and produce effective graphs for communicating information, which is a skill that is applicable to many disciplines – not just STEM.
“The methods and framework developed in the project have the potential to transform how modeling and empirical work are conducted by providing a concrete way to inform experimental design a priori and in such a way that mathematical models can be useful to empiricists at a feasible cost,” Prosper said.
The JuMP program begins in spring 2022 and will continue for the five years of the NSF CAREER grant. Students interested in the program should contact Olivia Prosper via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.