Honors Graduate Examines Epidemics With Equations

When Mayowa Olawoyin was ten years old, she loved to play school with her friends and be a pretend teacher, happily writing down problems and giving her students homework. The subject was always math.

It was in high school that she figured out that a lot of people don’t really ‘get’ math. So, she was able to explain it to other students. She wanted to help people that don’t understand the subject to see it in a different light.

Today Mayowa is a second year graduate student with an honors degree in mathematics. She graduated in May 2015 and received the Torgeson Bridge fellowship the following summer. Now her focus is research in mathematical biology, which is useful for understanding organic processes with equations.

She initially began research the field as an undergrad, working with teams through the Undergraduate Training in Theoretical and Ecological Research program. Both biology and math students were part of the program to see how infections could be translated into a system of equations.

“With math you have different tools to work with,” Mayowa said. “I model a biological system to try and try to predict what would happen in this system.”

For example, she worked on a project last semester to understand the spread of the mosquito-born Zika virus in Ecuador. She calculated various ways the virus was spread and how it varied in transmissibility: Mosquito to human, human to human sexually and also between mosquitoes sexually. The task was to create models that would be useful for public officials to make important decisions in case of an epidemic.

“You look at possible solutions to this problem or possible things that can contain it better,” she said.

Mayowa’s end goal is to be a professor and maybe do research at a public health institution that could utilize her mathematical models. Regardless of where she goes, she’ll always be a teacher. Her advice for honors students is not to give up, especially for students who want to go into research.

“You might hit a hard place and you don’t know where to go from there,” she said. “My advice is to stick to it and keep going — and to ask for help! I’m really big on asking for help. A lot of people don’t really like asking for help because that shows weakness but we don’t all know everything.”

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