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Unity student conducts research on the spread of disease

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Elliot "Joey" Moran '17

Since 1993, more than 650 people in the United States have suffered the effects of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, and 36 percent of those who contracted the disease died from it. Only Ebola is a more deadly communicable disease.

This summer, a group of undergraduate students from colleges across the country, including Unity College, used mathematical models to study the quixotic spread of hantavirus with an eye toward preventing the fatal illness.

Elliott “Joey” Moran ‘17, a Wildlife Biology major who’s also pursuing a minor in Applied Math and Statistics, was one of 16 undergraduates to take part in this year’s Summer Research Experience at NIMBioS (National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis).

Making connections

In a typical year, about 1,000 people from around the world come through the eight-year-old NIMBioS national program, which will also host a major conference on diversity in mathematics this Fall. To be selected, mentors look for advanced students. Most selected participants are rising juniors and seniors with a strong GPA.

Moran’s participation was facilitated with help from Associate Professor of Mathematics Dr. Carrie Diaz Eaton, who earned her PhD in Mathematical Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Tennessee, where NIMBioS is based. Eaton also continues to collaborate regularly with NIMBioS through her National Science Foundation project, QUBES.

“Carrie was great,” he said. “She helped me get these great experiences. I owe a lot to her.”

“Joey took Calculus II from me in the Spring (semester) of 2015, and then in Fall ‘15 followed it up with an independent study on modeling disease ecology with me and another student,” Eaton recalled.

This work won him The Fall 2015 Student Conference Award for Academic Excellence for his poster, “Comparing the Effects of General and Selective Culling on Chronic Wasting Disease Prevalence.” Moran will present some of that work at the International Symposium of Biomathematics Ecology and Education Research in mid-October in Charleston, S.C., with support from the Unity College Student Engagement Fund.

“That will be great experience,” Moran said, “to be able to present something in front of a large audience that’s specifically that field of study.

“I remember Joey well from the stellar project he presented at our Student Conference,” said Unity College President Dr. Melik Peter Khoury. “The caliber of work from some of our students makes us so proud. Our undergraduates are doing graduate-level research, and these internships enable them to learn collaboratively and make connections with some of the top people in their fields as they prep for their careers.

“I have no doubt I’ll be hearing more about Joey Moran’s work in the future,” Khoury said, “thanks in part to the extraordinary research opportunities he gained from being a Unity College student, collaborating with Unity College faculty.”

Interdisciplinary excellence

“Joey is really a top student overall; this I cannot emphasize enough. He dives in for a challenge. Finding someone with real interdisciplinary training to handle an interdisciplinary Research Experience for Undergraduates program is difficult,” Eaton said. “Unity provides this opportunity very well. In part, he also was selected because there are existing University of Tennessee/Unity College relationships,” Eaton said. “So UT knows the quality and training of the students we mentor.”

Eaton credited the Wildlife Biology program at Unity College with helping create the opportunity for Moran, saying said the Unity College brand of higher education made him well-equipped to be selected for and excel within the transdisciplinary NIMBioS project.

“Our Wildlife Biology program provides students additional opportunities for quantitative investigation,” she said. “It’s not entirely typical of every school. It gives our students the advantage in being able to take part in a transdisciplinary program like this with not just quantitative tools, but also the biological grounding to ask important questions about management of the population.”

NIMBioS & Transdisciplinary Teaching

The annual NIMBioS program provides undergraduates in math, biology, and related fields, as well as high school teachers in mathematics and biology, the opportunity to conduct research in teams with University of Tennessee professors, NIMBioS researchers, and other collaborators.

NIMBioS is one of the few national research centers dedicated to exploring the interface between math and biology. The organization brings together the talents of researchers from around the world to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries with an integrative approach to addressing the challenges in 21st-century biology.

The topics change each year, but typically cover a range of life science areas, including disease and health, evolution, ecology, molecular biology, and more. Students receive a stipend, apartment-style housing, travel support, and other aid.

Its mission is twofold: to foster the maturation of cross-disciplinary approaches at the interface of mathematics and biology, and to foster the development of researchers capable of creating collaborative connections across disciplines to effectively use mathematics to address fundamental and applied biological questions.

Since March 2009, more than 6,000 individuals from more than 50 countries and every U.S. state have participated in NIMBioS research programs, leading to the publication of more than 700 journal articles. Read more about the NIMBioS mission.

‘Good work, very enjoyable, intense’

During his eight-week program, Moran, of Jeffersonville, N.Y.,  lived on the University of Tennessee campus in Knoxville and worked in teams on a variety of biological research projects using mathematical methods.

“It was great,” Moran said. “There were a ton of really smart people and it was good work, very enjoyable, intense. We had eight weeks to do a lot of research, so it was super immersive.”

Joining Moran in the competitive eight-week Research Experience for Undergraduates, funded by a National Science Foundation Award with additional support from the University of Tennessee, were students from a variety of majors and colleges, including Ohio State University, the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, and the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, under the direction of University of Tennessee Beaman Distinguished Professor of Microbiology Colleen Jonsson and Associate Director of Education and Outreach Suzanne Lenhart.

Lenhart, who serves as Cox Professor and Chancellor’s Professor in the Mathematics Department at the University of Tennessee, and as Associate Director of Education and Outreach at NIMBioS, offered her skills as an applied mathematician. Her publications in biology address HIV, tuberculosis, bioreactors, bioeconomics, cardiac function, population dynamics, disease modeling, and resource management.

“Joey did a great job and was a pleasure to interact with,” Lenhart said, adding: “I hope we can recruit him to graduate school at the University of Tennessee.”

Predicting disease

Hantavirus is caused by a family of viruses carried by rodents which results in pulmonary disease, hemorrhagic fever and kidney failure. Jonsson has spent decades studying hantavirus, typically transmitted to humans when they breathe the aerosolized feces of infected rodents.

Samples for the study came from Paraguay via Texas Tech University Adjunct Professor Robert Owen, who sent them to Jonsson’s lab for processing. There, researchers determined whether mice have the virus or were ever exposed. Then, participants sequenced the virus.

Using that data, students created computer simulations to look at the virus’s prevalence over time, among rodents of different age groups and different environmental conditions, such as those that affect the rodents’ habitat and food source.

Moran said the virus seems to be cyclic; at times, as many as 40 percent of rodents are infected, while other times the infection rate can be close to nonexistent.

“There were some questions about why the virus was persisting in nature, because it would go along at a low prevalence for three or four years and then there would be an outbreak,” Moran said. “The low prevalence led people to believe it would die out of the system, but it wasn’t. So we tried to build a model predicting what was keeping the virus in nature.”

The hope is to develop a model that shows “what factors drive these oscillations in prevalence and what’s keeping hantavirus around and alive and not dying out,” he said.

Though the data was collected from mice at the Paraguay reserve, hantavirus is prevalent in the United States, especially in rural areas and agricultural buildings. The disease was discovered in the 1990s among Native American populations in the Southwest U.S., where Indian youths were becoming sick after harvesting pine nuts from mouse nests.

There’s no commercially available hantavirus vaccine. Treatment is limited to supportive care.

Moran said he loved studying with world-class researchers, working in a team with students with different areas of expertise, experience and cultural backgrounds, and taking part in social activities in Knoxville off hours that included trips to the Smoky Mountains and dinner at mentors’ houses.

He said he’ll spend the rest of his summer visiting with family and researching graduate school programs in quantitative ecology or disease ecology; his list currently includes Colorado State University, Michigan State University, and The University of Wisconsin.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016