The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how infectious diseases can wreak havoc on modern society and magnified how important it is for scientists to find ways to understand, predict, and better control them.

With a five-year $550,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award, Lauren Childs, an assistant professor with the Virginia Tech Department of Mathematics, seeks to develop mathematical frameworks that can decipher the dynamics of disease and suggest earlier, more effective interventions to mitigate the spread of disease.

“Simple mathematical models are useful tools in understanding patterns of disease spread, particularly in homogeneous populations,” Childs said. “However, real world populations are more complicated. We need to take into account factors like age, genetics, and prior exposure to disease to better identify groups where the disease is most likely to spread, which groups are at the most risk, and how long we should expect epidemics to last.”

Childs is one of four Virginia Tech College of Science faculty members to recently win a coveted NSF CAREER grant, considered one of the most prestigious awards of its kind, that supports creative junior faculty who are expected to become future academic leaders. Sujith Vijayan of the School of Neuroscience, Satoru Emori of the Department of Physics, and Frank Aylward of the Department of Biological Sciences are the three additional awardees.

Childs' proposed mathematical framework will combine information across systems operating on multiple scales and evolving in a time-varying manner via feedback. “Beyond insight on infectious disease spread, such a mathematical framework will help address questions with important implications for ecological management and immunology,” said Childs, a Cliff and Agnes Lilly Faculty Fellow in the College of Science.

“Applications could include, for example, how does the pattern of invasive plant species spread across a landscape, how do mosquito species disperse in a specific area, or how do immune cells, which vary in location and function, effectively organize a response.”

While Childs’ CAREER project will develop new theories and tools to involve multiple scales and variabilities along several axes, some of the ideas were motivated by her previous work involving the modeling of diseases, immunity from infection or vaccination, and the population dynamics of mosquitoes — spreaders of diseases such as malaria.

She has done extensive work with the goal of halting the spread of disease.

In 2019, Childs collaborated with a team of infectious disease experts from Harvard University’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health to study the role of natural mosquito behavior on transmission of a disease that threatens half the world’s population. Their paper, published in Nature, resulted in using atovaquone — also used to treat the malaria parasite when a person gets sick — to coat mosquito bed nets. When mosquitoes ingest the anti-malarial drug, the medication “cures” the mosquito so it cannot spread the disease.

With her research combining math and biology, Childs believes that interdisciplinary work is essential and the ability to clearly communicate about complex issues is key for successfully solving important real-world problems such as emerging infectious diseases. In addition to the Department of Mathematics, Childs is an affiliated faculty member with the systems biology program in the Academy of Integrated Science, also part of the College of Science, and a member of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute.

Childs earned dual bachelor’s degrees in science and chemistry from Duke University in 2004 and master’s and doctoral degrees in applied mathematics from Cornell University in 2007 and 2010, respectively. She joined Virginia Tech in 2016. She has written more than 35 articles in leading research journals and has given more than 75 invited professional presentations.

The educational component of Childs’ CAREER award seeks to train a diverse generation of interdisciplinary scientists, thereby increasing the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) workforce. Through a series of short courses designed to strengthen quantitative thinking and computational skills, graduate students across applied, mathematical, and computational disciplines will be introduced to skills such as model building, parameter estimation, data visualization, and coding.

The courses will have students using biological examples from infectious disease dynamics, Childs said.

The grant will also support graduate assistant positions; research projects for undergraduate students majoring in computational modeling and data analytics (CMDA) and systems biology programs; and middle school outreach through the Blacksburg Math Circle and the Virginia Tech Math Career Day. CMDA is part of the newly created Academy of Data Science, also housed in the College of Science.

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