Published April 30, 2015
A model conceived and developed by a three-member interdisciplinary team of UB students was among this year’s winners in a prestigious international mathematical modeling contest that demands from participants skill, ingenuity and endurance over an intense four-day period of competition.
The Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications (COMAP) named the UB team one of the 10 “Outstanding Winners” from among a field of more than 7,600 entries representing 17 countries in its 2015 Mathematical Contest in Modeling (MCM).
It is the contest’s highest distinction.
The winning UB entry modeled the eradication of Ebola, including the process of infection and all possible measures to eliminate the virus, and assumes the hypothetical existence of a cure.
UB’s winning team members are Andrew Harris, an aerospace engineering major with a minor in English; Dante Iozzo, a mathematics and physics major; and Nigel Michki, a computational physics major.
“This is a remarkable achievement. The students appreciate the recognition, but they also enjoyed the process,” says John Ringland, associate professor of mathematics and the team’s faculty adviser.
“Historically, our competitors in the MCM have been math majors. However, we in the math department strongly promote interdisciplinary activities and we recognize that an interdisciplinary team naturally brings together the broad array of knowledge, skills and perspectives that is necessary to achieve excellence in a contest like the MCM. We are delighted that our first interdisciplinary MCM team has had this great success.”
The annual event requires participants to propose a solution to one of two open-ended problems, which COMAP doesn’t reveal until the competition begins. Eradicating Ebola was this year’s Problem A. Searching for a lost plane was Problem B.
“Problem A is continuous mathematics — what we would consider traditional applied mathematics,” Ringland says. “Problem B usually leans a bit more toward computer science.”
The contest begins on a Thursday when COMAP posts the problems online.
Teams first select which problem they’ll address. From there, finding a solution becomes an intellectual and investigative sprint that gives participants just 96 hours to conduct research, devise a model, implement that model in computer code and run simulations.
Teams have access to any online or published resources they can use, but they can have no consultation from anyone outside of the group. By the Monday deadline, the analysis of results must be complete and detailed in a written report.
“It’s not a lot of time, especially since the questions are almost always in a field in which your team members have no experience,” Iozzo explains. “It is difficult to quickly become a quasi-expert in a random field and then right away start solving a problem in that field.”
Iozzo says it was exciting getting acquainted with the field and exploring the problem’s intricacies, but challenges during the competition are a 96-hour constant and exhaustion is inevitable, forcing participants to carefully budget their time and coordinate their sleep schedules.
This year’s Problem A assumed a new, hypothetical medication could stop Ebola and cure patients whose disease had not reached an advanced stage. Teams had to build mathematical models that considered not only the spread of the disease, but the quantity of medicine needed, feasible delivery systems and the time required to manufacture and administer the drug.
“Our model helped us to analyze the spread of Ebola and the effect of medical resource implementation,” Iozzo says. “A highly adjustable computer simulation illustrated not only the interactions between cities and regions, but also the interactions among individuals.”
Considering all that had to be accomplished in such a short time, Iozzo says the total task is like running full speed from the base of a mountain to its summit.
“It is truly a challenge, but at the very end it was amazing to see what we were capable of doing,” he says. “The final product was beyond anything we could have imagined 96 hours earlier.”