Summer School on Data, Dynamics, and COVID-19

Institute: AIM     March 2021

How did the Covid pandemic affect carbon emissions in 2020? Does having a certain blood type make one more susceptible to Covid? What is the role of the uninsured population in driving the pandemic?

These and many other questions were the focus of over forty graduate students and advanced undergraduates who participated in the 2020 AIM Online Summer School on Dynamics, Data and the COVID-19 Pandemic. Students had the opportunity to learn the basic mathematical epidemiology underlying the models used in studying COVID-19 using a dynamical systems perspective The first three weeks of the program were focused on getting the students up to speed on the mathematics of the modeling. During the first week, possible research questions were identified. The second week focused on understanding the models better and the third week emphasized data. The faculty leaders designed many interesting activities to prepare the for the actual research. For example, in week one an afternoon was devoted to a role-playing session in which two students played the role of policymakers and another two acted as scientists.

The fundamental model of epidemiology is the SIR model, shorthand for the three population groups (or compartments) in the model: Susceptibles, Infected, and Recovered. An epidemic is then thought of as a flow through the compartments, from S to I to R. There are variations of the SIR model, as well as other models that involve stochastic approaches, network approaches and agent-based models, where the behavior of each individual separately is taken into account.

To help structure the activities and give a sense of belonging, the summer school used a virtual office space called Sococo. Each participant had an office. There were meeting rooms, an ‘all hands on deck’ room, a library, a kitchen and even a cafe. So often everyone would meet in the ‘all hands’ room, and then break into smaller groups to work in meeting rooms or individual offices. Sococo allows one to start a Zoom meeting in a room, write together on a whiteboard, post links to materials, chat, watch a movie, or have a session of tai chi together.

The students were guided by ten faculty from universities around the country: John Gemmer (Wake Forest), Sarah Iams (Harvard), Hans Kaper (Georgetown), Richard McGehee (Minnesota), Nancy Rodriguez (CU-Boulder), Steve Schecter (NCState), Mary Silber (Chicago), Erik Van Vleck (Kansas), Mary Lou Zeeman (Bowdoin), and the program director, Christopher Jones (UNC-Chapel Hill). They were supported by five mentors, who are junior faculty, postdocs or advanced graduate students: James Broda (Bowdoin), Punit Gandhi (Virginia Commonwealth), Kaitlyn Martinez (Colorado Mines), Christian Sampson (UNC-Chapel Hill), and Maria Sanchez-Muñiz (Minnesota). Critical to the effort was a panel of experts, which included mathematical epidemiologists, a statistician, a medical expert and two health industry researchers. The experts were Linda Allen (Texas Tech), Pauline van den Driessche (Victoria), Nicholas Ma (Cerner), Cordelia McGehee (Mayo Clinic), Andrew Roberts (Cerner), Jianhong Wu (York), and Abdul-Aziz Yakubu (Howard),

After the initial three weeks of listening to lectures, videos and multiple discussions, the research was divided into five overarching areas: diseases and the environment, impacts of behavior, resource allocation, social Justice and incorporation of data. Students then formed into groups studying smaller subtopics. The participants hope to refine and continue their research.