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Lumen Scholar uses math in fight against malaria

Malaria kills as many as 3 million people worldwide each year, and for Elon University senior Amanda Brown, that’s 3 million people too many. The Ohio native, who is using her considerable mathematics skills to combat the disease, is the first student to be featured in a monthly series of E-net profiles on the inaugural class of the university's Lumen Scholars.

Elon senior Amanda Brown with her Lumen mentor, associate professor of mathematics Todd Lee.

Named in 2008 as one of the first 15 scholarship recipients, Brown has worked to develop new mathematical models that assist public health leaders who predict malaria infection rates.

Rising global temperatures make longer mosquito breeding periods, she said, creating a more urgent need to understand malarial dynamics. Brown is studying the effects of bed nets, which protect people while asleep, and how they fit into differential equations and simulations that predict infection rates.

“My goal right now is to go into public health,” Brown said. “I wanted to look at prevention of the disease and how a bed net might protect not just one person, but a lot of people in a community.”

Brown’s mathematics and public health scholarship takes center stage as university leaders plan to expand undergraduate research opportunities through Imagine Elon, a draft strategic plan that will eventually shape the university’s future through 2020.

Her research combines two loves in life, mathematics and service, and her application to the Lumen Scholars program details how those interests developed through youth group summer mission trips and a brief period in high school where calculus simply flummoxed the eventual class valedictorian.

Once at Elon, a sophomore year course with the Periclean Scholars program touched on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, one of which is to “combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases.” Discussions with classmates and her professors cemented Brown’s interest in using math to control, if not eradicate, the disease.

The following year, Brown led a College Coffee table focused on malaria research. The table allowed visitors to roll a die, which represented the probability of a person contracting the illness.

“It was an interesting way to bring that (awareness) to the community,” she said.

Brown had an extended visit with the South African Malaria Research Programme over the 2009 winter term and will be studying in Ghana during the 2010 winter term.

She took a break from malaria modeling in summer 2009 as a research and lab assistant at the University of Texas at Houston in the School of Public Health. In that role, Brown researched a type of bacterial infection common in hospitals that impact patients, primarily seniors, with bouts of diarrhea and cramps.

Working in microbiology lab, she said, was “definitely a good experience for learning about other types of research in the public health world.”

Todd Lee, an associate professor of mathematics and Brown’s Lumen mentor, is not only impressed with his student’s book smarts. Brown hustled to secure a prestigious internship with the FBI before opting instead for the Houston gig. That work ethic and decision-making are the kind of attributes in which the Lumen Prize was meant to invest, he said.

“She’s loaded her gun where she can fire in a lot of different directions,” Lee said. “Coming through this is her willingness to take ownership and do what’s necessary to have serious experiences. That’s something that’s kind of rare.”

The Lumen Prize provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic achievements and research proposals.

Lumen Scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects. Efforts include course work, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad as well as during the regular academic year and summers, internships locally and abroad, program development, and creative productions and performances.

The name for the Lumen Prize comes from Elon's historic motto, “Numen Lumen,” Latin words for “spiritual light” and “intellectual light.”

Brown’s mathematics research is co-mentored by Lee and assistant professor Karen Yokley, while geography professor Heidi Frontani mentors her Periclean work.

“Coming to Elon I didn’t know what I wanted to do after school. I didn’t have my sights set on any one thing,” Brown said. “That’s why the math major attracted me. So many people don’t realize what you can do with a math major.”

Brown keeps busy outside her research with her involvement in the Elon’s Piano Pedagogy Program, and with the Alpha Xi Delta sorority.

“I don’t want to end up sitting at a desk all day doing boring work,” she said, reflecting on her plans to possibly enroll in a mathematics or epidemiology graduate program. “Science can only do so much before people have to implement certain things to protect themselves from disease.”

To learn more about the Lumen Prize and other undergraduate research opportunities at Elon University, click on the link to the right of this page under E-Cast.

Eric Townsend,
9/29/2009 10:59 AM