Disease detectives

Real Life Science: Mathematical Epidemiologists

Coronavirus heatmap by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at John Hopkins University.

Epidemiologists are public health professionals who investigate human diseases. They analyze the patterns of diseases to help reduce the risk of negative outcomes. Looking for clues at the scene of the crime, they are often called “disease detectives.”

Mathematical epidemiologists develop and apply mathematical models to the spread of an outbreak. The purpose of this is to help understand where, how fast, and by what mechanisms the disease is growing. Statisticians contribute greatly to this work by making sense of the quantitative information surrounding the epidemic. This includes data like death rates, the number of confirmed cases, rates of infection and recovery, and the variations of these quantities - information that is crucial to the development of relevant public policy.

“In a rare reversal of our standard cultural attitude, nobody at the moment is asking, when will I ever need to use math?” said RIT professor David Ross.

Virtually every pharmaceutical firm has an epidemiology department that hires mathematicians to do this work. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) also hire applied mathematicians.

As a mathematical epidemiologist, you might find yourself working in laboratories, pharmaceutical companies or government organizations such as:

  • The Centers for Disease Control (CDC)
  • The National Institutes of Health (NIH)
  • Pfizer
  • Novartis
  • GSK

RIT’s School of Mathematical Sciences trains students in everything from basic epidemiological modeling to the computational algorithms used in epidemiological and biomedical simulations. RIT graduates have worked at the following organizations:

  • Regeneron
  • Genentech
  • Boehringer Ingelheim
  • Novum Pharmaceutical Research Services
  • Merck

RIT is preparing the next generation of mathematical epidemiologists at The School of Mathematical Sciences.


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