Guest Post By Jaye Sudweeks, NC School of Science and Math

corona viruses

Corona viruses like SARS (CDC image)

Viruses are very cool.  Ashley Sobel taught me that.

Sobel is an MD/PHD student at Duke.  She currently works in the Koelle Research Group, a group that focuses on using mathematical models to understand the “ecological and evolutionary dynamics of infectious diseases.”

When I asked Ashley what in particular drew her to infectious diseases, she had a ready answer. “Infectious diseases are pretty awesome.  They have shaped more of human civilization than anything else. It’s very clear that the reason some wars came out the way they did isn’t because of good generals or good supply lines, but because of the viruses, pathogens and bacteria that people brought with them.”

Ashley Sobel is being groomed to be a physician-scientist.

Ashley Sobel is being groomed to be a physician-scientist.

Ashley’s interest in infectious diseases was piqued in high school, when the SARS virus hit. She recalls being intrigued that such a new phenomenon could have such a major impact.

It was this interest in SARS, along with participating in science Olympiad that drew Ashley to science. Ashley’s involvement in Science Olympiad began when the instructor found out that she was building her own cello out of a mannequin. “It’s name was Wilberta,” Ashley remembers fondly. “We gave it a coconut bra and a hula skirt.”

As a scientist, Ashley considers mathematics and modeling interesting tools to investigate infectious disease. “Modeling is basically taking key relationships that we know are true and putting them together in a mathematical context to see what we can learn about the underlying processes. You identify processes that you might not get by looking at the data.”

Ashley shared with me the process of building a model. The first thing to do when building a model, she explains, is to gain an understanding of the biology affecting the scenario. This should be followed by an examination of pre-existing models.

Next, it is important to make simplifications that allow your model to function, but don’t trivialize the subject matter. “There are a lot of standard assumptions,” she explains.

The time it takes to construct a model varies. Ashley has only recently completed a project that she started two years ago.  “It can take a long time to identify the mathematics that will give you the patterns that you see in nature.”

Jaye Sudweeks

Jaye Sudweeks

As a scientist, Ashley values the emphasis that the scientific community places on curiosity, a trait that she feels is looked down upon in other career fields. And, after just one conversation with Ashley, it is easy to see why she feels that way. Ashley is easily one of the most curious, passionate, and inspiring people I have ever had the privilege to meet.  In the span of our brief meeting, Ashley sat crossed legged in her spinning office chair and taught me a couple of very important things.

Passion is cool. Modeling is cool. Viruses are cool.