At first glance, fictional zombies, real diseases and mathematics do not seem to have very much in common, but Dr. Robert Smith? (the question mark is part of his name), assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics and the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Ottawa, is putting all these elements to use in creating mathematical models for infectious diseases.
The zombie portion of the equation arose from a class project on disease modeling that will be part of an upcoming book entitled Infectious Disease Modeling Research Progress. Dr. Smith? welcomes the national and international attention the zombie angle has brought to his research, but cautions that the fictional zombies are used to explain some very serious science.
"When you try to model an unfamiliar disease, you try to find out what's happening, try to approximate it. You then refine it, go back and try again," explained Dr. Smith?. "We refined the model again and again to say: here's how you would tackle an unfamiliar disease."
Originally from Australia, Robert Smith?'s initial doctoral studies were in environmental cleanup methods. He then became interested in applying mathematical tools to questions of disease control, which led to immunological modeling of HIV. Using mathematical models, Dr. Smith? was able to determine how many doses of HIV drugs could be missed and how many would have to be taken consecutively, in order to be back in a good place.
“The zombies have grabbed quite a lot of attention. And rightly so, because who doesn't love the flesh-eating undead?” Smith? writes on his website.
“A surprising number of people have emailed me to tell me that the model doesn't include the killing of the zombies [it does, in the impulsive eradication section] or that zombies don't come back to life when you kill them [I'm sorry, but they do; Shaun hits one with his car in Shaun of the Dead and then it comes back to life].
“The fact that I can have this kind of discussion about my academic work thrills me to bits,” Smith? writes.
“Except for that one guy who asked, apparently in all seriousness, if I'd help him create a zombie virus. Now that's scary.”