Biology Undergrad Uses Award to Research Infectious Diseases' Spread
November 16, 2012 – Sarah Kramer (C’14), a recent Clare Boothe Luce Scholarship winner, is using math to understand – under the tutelage of a Georgetown biology professor – how infectious diseases spread through populations.
A biology of global health major, Kramer’s scholarship will help her fund tuition as she continues her research.
Kramer conducts her lab research with Shweta Bansal, an assistant professor who joined the biology department this summer and helps Kramer understand pathogen behavior.
Disease and Math
“Dr. Bansal and I work on modeling infectious diseases with mathematics, so we use computers to learn how diseases spread through a population and then work on different interventions that can slow down or stop the spread,” Kramer explained. “I want to keep doing that for the next couple years, and I also hope to work on my thesis next year in that lab.”
Kramer is also working toward a minor in math, which has long been one of her favorite subjects and which she says lends itself to practical applications within biology.
For her thesis, Kramer plans to study influenza. She believes that the handful of big flu outbreaks throughout history can shed light on which vaccines and antiviral drugs are most effective.
“With the flu, looking at old pandemics is important to inform my knowledge of what we should do if there’s another pandemic,” Kramer said. “We only have [a serious flu outbreak] about three times a century, so you really have to look into the ones that have happened in the past.”
Patterns of Transmission
Kramer says epidemiology fascinates her because it is so different from most medical sciences.
Medicine typically focuses on the mechanics and symptoms of disease or on how disease works inside the body and manifests after invasion, she says.
But epidemiologists, Kramer notes, look at patterns of transmission – how disease is passed from person to person.
“I’m mostly interested in viruses,” she explains. “Viruses can’t be cured, so it’s really important to stop them from spreading because, other than that, there’s not a whole lot you can do about them.”
Eventually, Kramer would like to become an epidemiologist who travels in local, national and international hot zones – areas with high rates of infection – in order to better understand illness and to save lives.
Kramer traces her passion for biology to her childhood. At home she grew up learning from her father, a doctor, while in school she was introduced to projects about illness and treatment of the human body.
“I first got interested in [epidemiology] in ninth grade,” Kramer said, noting that she was competing in a science Olympiad called Disease Detectors.
“[This involved] testing students or educating students about how epidemiologists check or investigate outbreaks of infectious diseases,” she says. “That’s when I really got interested in it.”