Dr. Robert Smith?
Using differential equations to build models to prevent, stop and reverse epidemics, including determining who should get the HPV vaccine or where to spread insecticides to fight malaria
I started academic life in sewage. When it comes down to it, don’t we all, really? But I did so a bit more literally than most, since I was studying sewage treatment and toxic waste cleanup for my PhD. This is a process called self-cycling fermentation and is kinda funky after you’ve spent five years thinking about nothing but that.
Still, it gave me good training in Applied Mathematics (my pure math days started in Australia and had a brief flirtation in my Master’s degree in Canada, but then I gave into the dark side of mathematics and decided to apply myself). It also taught me Impulsive Differential Equations, which are a great tool and something more people should know about (although thanks to the zombies, now they probably do). It helps if you can think discontinuously, but that wasn’t too much of a problem for me.
After my PhD, I did a postdoc at the University of Western Ontario, where I discovered infectious diseases. At first it was just the one, you know? A little HIV, you know you want to, all your friends are doing it… Before I knew it, I was studying malaria, then it was human papillomavirus. After that, it was all a blur of neglected tropical diseases that kept coming and coming and, oh god, then I was into some really hardcore stuff, man. And once you’ve tried modelling zombies, you can never go back… *sobs*
Oh, right, sorry about that. Let me start over.
I started doing immunological modelling of HIV with Lindi Wahl and really enjoyed it. We came up with a series of papers, which involved applying my Impulsive Differential Equations skills to drug-taking in order to create a complex HIV model and then use that to discuss drug resistance. This led to one of the few papers to deal with the question of adherence (it started life as a collaboration with Lindi, but she kindly pushed me out of the nest). Which is a shame, as the US department of health and human services called it the most urgent unanswered question in HIV research.
My second postdoc was at UCLA, which everyone in Canada thought was a dream come true, but being Australian I’d experienced actual warmth before, so I seemed to fit right in. I was part of the Disease Modelling Group in the School of Medicine, working on epidemiological models of HIV under Sally Blower. And that still sounds fancy.
Sally and I published a paper on possible perverse outcomes of HIV vaccines. As well as being a pretty high profile publication academically, this was the first paper my parents could actually read and not be bamboozled by. I got a lot of postive comments from non-academic friends and family… I also got a lot of sympathetic murmers from pure mathematicians when I told them that not only did all my math work get put into an appendix, it got put into a web-only appendix. Such is the price of leaving the cosy world of mathematics.
Our group also published a paper on female sex workers and HIV vaginal microbicides. I started off in the rectal microbicide team, but then switched to the vaginal team. The jokes were never-ending, I can assure you.
I then moved to the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where I worked on zoonotic diseases, specifically malaria, Chagas’ disease and West Nile Virus. I even got to go on a West Nile Virus field trip and stand around at the creek where it all happened in Chicago. It took me a while to realise that hey, maybe all those mosquitoes buzzing around my bare arms might not be the best idea… But I think there are two types of disease modellers: those who let it get to them and think they’ve caught everything under the sun and those who become incredibly blase about it. Thankfully I’m in the latter category.
After a whirlwind interviewing tour of the continent, I ended up at the University of Ottawa. Now I teach, write grants and organise conferences like every other professor. Unlike most of them, I can skate to work, which is quite the achievement in the eyes of my Australian family and friends. I’m still working on HIV, but have become interested in Human Papillomavirus (thanks to the vaccine), malaria, various tropical diseases – and, of course, that terrifying infection known to humanity only as… zombies!
The zombies have grabbed quite a lot of attention. And rightly so, because who doesn’t love the flesh-eating undead? A surprising number of people have emailed me to tell me that the model doesn’t include the killing of the zombies (it does, in the impulsive eradication section) or that zombies don’t come back to life when you kill them (I’m sorry, but they do; Shaun hits one with his car in Shaun of the Dead and then it comes back to life). The fact that I can have this kind of discussion about my academic work thrills me to bits. Except for that one guy who asked, apparently in all seriousness, if I’d help him create a zombie virus. Now that’s scary.
|Type of institution|
University of Ottawa, Laurier Avenue East, Ottawa, ON, Canada
|I have a knowledge mobilization grant.|
|Professional, scientific and technical services|
Federal government public administration, Provincial and territorial public administration, Local, municipal and regional public adminstration, International and other extra-territorial public adminstration, Aboriginal public administration