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Math, Measles, and a Computer Simulation

Many students have opportunities to present research to their classes and peers in local settings, but Valerie Welty (math ’16) took her work to the other side of the country. Welty, a College of Science and Math Council of Undergraduate Research Scholar, presented thesis research at the Joint Mathematics Meetings that took place in Seattle, WA this past January.

Of the 6,000 professionals attending this year’s conference, Welty was one of only 300 undergraduates to attend. She presented a poster on her research entitled “Mathematical Models for Infectious Disease Epidemics, With an Emphasis on Measles and Computer Simulation.”

“For my thesis, I created a program that simulates a measles outbreak based on such factors as self-quarantine, contact rates, and vaccines,” Welty said.

This Java-based computer program allows one to input different variables to determine various methods for preventing the spread of measles. Welty, for example, used this program to look at how much vaccination is needed to keep a measles epidemic from worsening. Her preliminary results suggest that vaccine percentages above ninety make the chance of an epidemic low, and that contact rate has a huge influence over the likelihood of an outbreak.

Creating this program required Welty to familiarize herself with programming, a field with which she was initially only slightly familiar.

Welty presenting her findings at the Joint Mathematics Meeting in Seattle, Washington

Welty presenting her findings at the Joint Mathematics Meeting in Seattle, Washington

“I had to teach myself more programming beyond what I had learned in an introductory course,” said Welty. “It was definitely a learning experience.”

In addition to navigating more complex programming, Welty also had to prepare herself for another first—her first research conference. She did not let this fact intimidate her, however.

“The poster presentation went very well, and I received positive feedback from the judges. It was great to have the set attention of three professionals in my field, especially because they were able to give me perspectives on my research outside of just mine and my mentor’s.”

Welty was able to take this feedback and incorporate it into her Honors Thesis, preparing for her next presentation at the Spring 2016 Honors Research Symposium in April. Not only did this experience give Welty valuable criticism for her thesis, but it also gave her the chance to network in her field.

“I was able to attend so many talks from math professionals and hear other really interesting presentations,” said Welty. “It was an awesome experience.”

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