Hometown: Ocoee, FL
Why did you apply to the SRE program? I was very dead-set on doing a PhD and wanted to get a summer research experience under my belt. This program was a really good fit because I was already interested in mathematical biology and the faculty seemed to be world-class.
What is the purpose of your research?
Evolution is pretty well understood, and epidemiology—the study of how diseases spread through a population—is also rather well understood. We generally think that evolutionary processes happen very slowly, so slowly in fact that when we talk about biological processes that occur over months or years we are safe to assume that evolution isn't relevant. Recent developments in both evolutionary biology and epidemiology would suggest otherwise. There are surprisingly general conditions under which evolution can have drastic impacts on biological happenings. Consider for example when a popular pesticide stops being effective because the current pest population is resistant or immune. That's an example of rapid evolution. Research into this dynamic interplay can have major implications for public health (epidemics and pests), medicine (cancer and drug therapies), as well as conservation. Our work is intended to broaden understanding in this regard and make a meaningful contribution to the existing literature.
What does the research ultimately accomplish? What contributions to science and/or humanity does the research ultimately make?
Beyond just being a project that integrates evolutionary and ecological processes, our approach is pretty novel. We use game theoretic methods to simplify the birth processes of interest and incorporate a variety of approaches that have not been combined before. We look at moisture and temperature gradients over spatial and temporal scales (climate change) and three-way coevolutionary systems (hosts, vectors, and pathogens) to determine: 1- how climate change affects these processes, 2- how we can forecast the impacts of climate change on potentially vulnerable host species, and 3- what potential conservation protocols can effectively protect endangered populations. A specific species we have in mind is Hawaiian honeycreepers (birds) afflicted by avian malaria (disease), which is spread by mosquitoes (vectors) in the context of climate change. We hope to provide a theoretical basis to launch conservation efforts for these birds.
Describe a typical day on the job.
Depending on the day, work usually starts when we meet up as a group, either with or without our mentors. Then we work on dividing the labor, which includes theorizing/modeling, programming, digging up and integrating information. I tend to lean toward the theoretical side of things, so a lot of my work was analyzing existing models in the literature and helping to tweak them for our own purposes, as well as identifying approaches to the problems that either had very high or very low probabilities of success based on the relevant theory. After group sessions we usually break out to work independently for the rest of the day, as long as warranted.
Tell us something about your field of study we might be surprised to know.
Evolution and more generally biology is a fundamentally mathematical and quantitative study. And furthermore, practically every "applied" area of math has found its way into biology, and just about every area of biology is rife with quantitative and mathematical techniques for studying it.
Do you have an interesting "personal side" to your research experiences?
While we're not explicitly researching it, a lot of our methods are directly applicable to studying cancer dynamics within hosts. Cancer is both an epidemiological and evolutionary process, so it lends itself readily for mathematical exploration, but it's also exceedingly complex. I'm a first generation college student and I've lost a lot of family members to both cancer and cancer-related complications. This work is difficult, and the field is very niche, but if any impact I make can help manage this terrible disease, it will be worth it.
What were your favorite parts of the SRE program?
Meeting all the mentors and grad students in and around NIMBioS. Not only is everyone terrifyingly smart, but they all seem downright eager to make themselves available to us in whatever ways possible. And while the opportunity to meet some of the best and brightest in the field is amazing, frankly what shook me the most is how informal and comfortable the environment was. It really seemed like a group of people coming together to do something they love as opposed to a workplace. It really helped calm my fears about grad school.
What new experiences did you gain that have helped you today?
I have a lot of insecurities about the quality of my work and whether I'm "smart enough" to make a worthwhile contribution to the fields I'm interested in. My time here has shown me that my worries were unnecessary. Being curious, creative, and hardworking is all it takes to make serious contributions, especially in a group setting.
What advice would you give someone who's interested in/curious about participating in the program?
Apply. Really, it's worth it. Don't worry about your GPA, don't worry about research experience. If you're passionate about the things that interest you, the people writing your recommendation letters and the people reading your application will see that, and that's what is really going to set you apart as a researcher.
Would you recommend our program to others?
100%! This experience has been truly transformative. I almost can't believe that I'm expected to go back to my home institution in the fall. I've learned so much about myself, the field, and what it takes to be successful completely independent of the research aspect which I also loved. This experience is always going to be a milestone for me.