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2013 REU Program Participant Profiles: Michael Vella

Michael Vella photo.

Major: Applied and Computational Mathematics and Statistics with a concentration in Biological Sciences
School: University of Notre Dame
Hometown: Minneapolis, MN
REU Research Project: Modeling the environmental transmission of infectious diseases: Escherichia coli transmission in cattle

What is the purpose of your research?
My group's research involves creating a model for the transmission of E. coli between cows on a farm and from the cows to the environment around the farm. E. coli in runoff from farms can contaminate vegetables growing in nearby farms, and this can lead to transmission to humans. We hope to accurately predict levels of transmission based on our model and to determine how these levels might be limited.

Describe a typical day on the job.
For the first few weeks, a typical day involved much coding as we created our model and reading papers to understand cow behavior. Now that the model is nearing completion, we are running simulations and analyzing the results of the simulations to see if we can find emergent dynamics. Even though most of the day is spent at a computer, it is also filled with conversation since my group works closely together to discuss ideas and make decisions. We also have meetings with our mentors a couple of times each week and have various informative meetings with all the REU students about topics such as applying to grad school.

Do you have an interesting "personal side" to your research experiences?
Our models are agent-based, so we can watch each cow as it grazes, sleeps, drinks, and performs any other actions we program into the model. As a result, the cows have exhibited quite amusing behavior in some simulations. My group has had a good time working together and has shared laughs about some of the silly cow behavior in early models.

What were your favorite parts of the REU program?
One of my favorite parts of the program is meeting people from a variety of schools and hometowns who all share similar interests and goals. We've had fun doing activities together in our free time and have helped one another think about plans for the future.

What new experiences did you gain that have helped you today?
My research this summer involved using a program I had never used before to model something I was not initially very familiar with. This experience has improved my ability to quickly learn about and conduct research that is outside my area of expertise.

What do you do outside of work?
One of my most routine activities outside of work is playing Ultimate Frisbee. A large group of us started playing in the first week here, and it was so much fun that we kept playing many times each week. Playing card games has been a consistent source of entertainment as well. We've also gone out in the surround area for activities, including seeing synchronized fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains, visiting the Knoxville Zoo, and going whitewater rafting.


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