Mapping Zika’s Spread

Using Network Science, Yeshiva College Students’ Research Tracks an Epidemic’s Path

By now, most Americans are familiar with the Zika virus. The epidemic, which is especially dangerous for unborn children, has proven to be one of the most difficult to contain in recent history—and also one of the least understood. How does it spread, and how can we stop it?

Those urgent questions are at the heart of a new research project by two students at Yeshiva College to track and analyze the virus’s spread.

For Daniel Goldsmith and Joshua Blau, it began with a class in network science taught by Dr. Marian Gidea, professor of mathematics. The two were drawn to the class, which explores how actions by individual nodes of complex networks influence the whole, for different reasons: Blau wanted to better understand the role network science plays in the functioning of the brain, while Goldsmith wanted to learn about current mathematical models being used to study complex systems. Both were fascinated by the course.

“We knew we wanted to do research in network science, so we consulted Professor Gidea on potential topics,” said Blau, a senior majoring in math and computer science from Cincinnati, Ohio. Gidea suggested the pair study the Zika virus, citing its complexity as a contagion involving multiple species; travelers that move between different communities, which further increase the complexity with which the virus propagates; and Zika’s coverage in the news as a major epidemic.

Daniel Goldsmith and Josh Blau are researching the spread of the Zika virus
Daniel Goldsmith and Josh Blau are using network science to track the spread of the Zika virus.

Blau and Goldsmith loved the idea. “It was an exciting opportunity to build a computational model that responds to a real-life issue and hopefully provides a possible framework for studying different scenarios that may emerge, including simulating different communities across the world, its impact at the Olympics, and viral prevention methods,” said Goldsmith, a senior majoring in math and physics from North Woodmere, New York.

To track Zika’s spread in dozens of different scenarios, Blau and Goldsmith built a computer program to simulate how the virus might move through and between populations depending on variables like demographics, seasonality and population size. Studying the different paths depicted in each simulation allows the students to observe trends in how the virus is transmitted.

“There have been a lot of exciting and surprising elements of the research,” said Blau. “In some scenarios, human-to-human transmission plays a much more central role in the spread of the virus than we previously thought. Seeing the adjustments we made in community structure affect the spread of the virus was also very cool.”

“We definitely learned that social and biological systems are extraordinarily complex and need to be approached with a sense of respect and excitement in order to make real progress,” added Goldsmith. “The interesting situations that arose tested our assumptions of how a virus, or any commodity, spreads in a complex system like our computer model, versus simpler systems that we and many others often conceptualize mentally.”

Gidea has mentored Blau and Goldsmith through the process, helping them identify what areas to focus on, what was working in their approach and where it could be adjusted. He also exposed the students to a broad range of ideas and concepts related to their project.

“Josh and Daniel’s accomplishments have been truly amazing,” said Gidea. “They have been the driving force behind this project, coming up with many innovative modeling ideas, computer code, and numerical simulations. The Zika virus is transmitted from mosquitoes to humans and vice versa, as well as among humans, so in modeling, one has to take into account the seasonal changes in the mosquitoes population, as well as the patterns of human interactions, among other things. This requires a rather sophisticated methodology, involving differential equations and network science.

He noted that the students’ research could have important ramifications for scientists and medical professionals working to stop the spread of the epidemic. “Their simulations indicate that even if the virus transmission from mosquitoes to humans is somehow stopped, Zika can continue to spread among humans and infect a large number of people,” said Gidea. “Understanding various possible scenarios of this epidemic can be helpful in designing more comprehensive prevention strategies.”

Goldsmith and Blau will present their research at the International School and Conference on Network Science, NetSci-X 2017, which takes place from January 15-18, 2017 in Tel Aviv, Israel. The conference is one of the most prestigious in the field. “We’re look forward to hearing from world class speakers, learning a lot and networking and making new connections,” said Goldsmith, adding, “Pun intended.”