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Sara Del Valle: Turned a Love of Math into a Life-Saving Measure

From now on, when someone asks, “When am I ever going to use algebra in the real world?”, they need look no further than Sara Del Valle. She’s been using the principles of solving equations learned in algebra to help save lives for more than a decade.

No, seriously.

Del Valle is a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M., where she has worked on developing, integrating and analyzing mathematical and computational models for the spread of infectious diseases such as smallpox, anthrax, malaria, HIV and influenza on a pandemic scale.

“For the first time, I realized I could use my love of math and also impact people by developing models that can help understand infectious disease and hopefully save lives,” Del Valle said. “I felt like helping people through my math love was the perfect combination for me.”

They use a number of sophisticated simulations and play out “what if” scenarios to see how they may be able to stop a disease from spreading. They are also studying the use of Internet data streams, such as social media, to capture emergent behaviors during disease outbreaks to measure the potential impact of mitigation strategies.

Technology is also a big part of the team’s research. Much like the concept of the game “Sim City,” Los Alamos uses large-scale computer simulations with office buildings, malls, schools, etc., to study and understand how diseases spread in real populations. They use these simulations to explore the impact of optimal mitigation strategies such as school and airport closures, quarantine, and other containment measures to figure out how to best halt the spread of diseases.

“I feel like globalization has increased our potential exposure to many more diseases due to our highly interconnected world,” she said. “Containing diseases is a challenge now. Even if you close borders or stop airplanes coming from the areas that are impacted, the chances of you containing them are small because there are so many other ways that people can travel that is nearly impossible to halt disease spread.”

Del Valle and her team believe the best way to develop more accurate models that can inform decision makers is to get their hands on as much data as they can.

“I think the amount of data we’re constantly generating through new technologies such as FitBit and Apple Watch, could create new opportunities for models that we never imagined before,” she said. “If that data could somehow be compiled and used for health purposes, I think everyone could benefit.”

Del Valle already has accomplished so much in her field, but she still has her eyes on a bigger goal — to create a disease forecasting system. Ideally, people would be able see forecasts of the disease-spreading dynamics at the country, state or even city level — much like how they would get their weather forecast.

“If we had highly granular data for all diseases and all countries, then we could develop these systems that anyone could access,” Del Valle said. “A disease forecasting system would also help public health departments by allowing them to prepare ahead of time the right amount of resources and staff.

When Los Alamos National Laboratory isn’t preventing infectious diseases from spreading, it is helping develop the next generation of scientists. Every summer, Los Alamos offers a number of programs for students interested in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). The programs, which offer summer schools focusing on cyber, engineering, machine learning and more, bring in more than 1,000 students every year.

Los Alamos is a part of the Department of Energy (DOE), which offers scholarships for minority students. Del Valle has mentored students who have received academic funding from the DOE, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), all which provide research programs for underrepresented minorities.

“Our programs are crucial for building a pipeline,” Del Valle said. “A large percentage of the Lab’s workforce started as students. I started here as a graduate student. I think student internships at Los Alamos allow students to test the waters of research and they open the door for future employment. My recommendation to students is that if you want to stay here, you need to work hard and become indispensable and the rest should fall into place.”



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