|Math student helps halt infectious blindness|
January 11, 2006
|Kathryn Maxey is probably the first mathematics student from SFSU to
travel to Africa to complete her master's degree research and thesis.
Working closely with a medical researcher last year, she developed a
mathematical model that simulated how the bacterial infection Chlamydia
trachomatis spread throughout 16 villages in Ethiopia. Aimed to predict
the spread of the infection, Maxey's model should prove a valuable tool
in the World Health Organization's (WHO) plan to control trachoma, a
preventable cause of blindness.
"Mathematical modeling has long been used to
study complex biological processes such as the spread of infectious
diseases through particular
populations," said Arek Goetz, associate professor of mathematics
and one of Maxey's thesis advisers. "But it is only recently that
models are being used to design the best strategies for controlling
outbreaks of global proportion."
Maxey's research was conducted in collaboration with Thomas Lietman, M.D., an associate professor at the Proctor Foundation, an ophthalmology research center at University of California, San Francisco. They developed baseline data by measuring the rate of infection and recovery from earlier data collected in Ethiopia's Guraghe zone. Dr. Lietman then took swabbed samples of moisture from the eyes of 100 children in 16 Ethiopian villages. The same groups were sampled again after two and six months.
Once the samples were analyzed, Maxey developed a mathematical model to predict the future rate of infection in Ethiopian communities undergoing mass antibiotic treatments. After running 1,000 mathematical simulations, the model proved that eliminating the infection locally is possible and that average prevalence will continue to decrease with appropriate antibiotic use.
Though an effective vaccine does not exist, trachoma is currently treated in undeveloped countries with mass doses of an antibiotic. The treatment is given to all individuals in infected communities whether they have contracted the disease or not. Maxey's calculations will help health agencies to develop a more precise timetable and less expensive treatment regime to stop the spread of trachoma.
Maxey said that the inspiration for her thesis was a biostatistics course. She credits her advisers -- Goetz and Mathematics Professor Mohammad Kafai -- for their support during the process.
"One of the reasons I chose to pursue my master's in math at SFSU is because the professors here really put their students first," Maxey said.
Maxey will continue her work as a staff research associate at the Proctor Foundation and plans to build a career as a mathematician in medical research.
"I like the idea of entering a messy situation and using math to make some sense of something," Maxey said. "And this work allows me to make a difference."
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