Math and Biology Took a Road Trip. Here’s What They Learned.

Huts on the beach at the Clinic for the Meaningful Modeling of Epidemiological Data in Muizenberg, Cape Town, South Africa. Photo by Cara Brook.
Huts provide a splash of color on the beach during the Clinic for the Meaningful Modeling of Epidemiological Data in Muizenberg, Cape Town, South Africa, June 2015. (Photo by Cara Brook)

It is still dark at 7am, as I run along the beach in the southernmost region of Cape Town, South Africa. The winter air is crisp and sharp, and the frosty waves that lap at my tennis shoes roll off to distant Antarctica. I am breathless from the run and the chill and my awe of the vast world around me.

Putting Meaning Into Modeling

My colleague from the University of Antananarivo, Christian Ranaivoson, and I have taken a brief respite from our doctoral research tracking zoonotic bat viruses in Madagascar. In lieu of countless hours of bat netting in remote corners of the Malagasy rainforest, we find ourselves immersed instead in mathematics.

We’re attending the sixth annual Clinic on the Meaningful Modeling of Epidemiological Data (MMED). Its goal is to bring together mathematicians who can work wonders processing data and biologists who study disease outbreaks and can interpret that data as it applies to the real world.

Case in Point

On day one of the workshop, our professors present us with a series of graphs showing the number of cases of various diseases throughout time in London and Wales. We are asked to talk to our neighbors about what we think is going on in the images.

Time Series of Infections From London and Wales, 1930 to 1980 (Credit to Jim Scott and Brian Williams, MMED, June 2015)

“Well, obviously hygiene and antibiotics have greater impacts on the bacterial pathogens,” I say gesturing to the typhoid and scarlet fever graphs. “But sheer number of susceptible hosts is more important for the virus—you can see the spike in measles cases during the baby boom. —> Read More