Never before in the history of the Society of mathematical biology has the importance of mathematical modelling been more prominent in the public eye. We will probably remember these days, in years to come, as a true opportunity to contribute to the global fight against the pandemic.
Predictive mathematical models that capture the underlying mechanistic biology of specific processes are at the heart of everything we do. The COVID-19 virus pandemic has brought into sharp focus the critical importance of mathematical models in both making predictions about current trends in the disease dynamics but also how specific interventions, such as social distancing, might modify them. Understanding these interventions theoretically becomes important not only for mathematical biologists, but also for politicians and other decision makers.
Most of the our society members are currently doing some form of social distancing, as is a large proportion of the world. In these confined and difficult times, anxiety and stress are running high. But it is important to remember that we have the power of mathematical modelling behind us. Their predictive ability illustrates why we must slowdown the spread of this virus by staying home. Flattening the curve has become our new mantra. Importantly mathematical modelling will also help us decide how to best end this quarantine.
We are at a key point in the history of our society where our models are helping to inform policy decisions that impact millions of lives. Therefore it is fundamental that we make every effort to articulate as clearly as possible what mathematical models are, what they can be used for, and what are their limitations.
The integration of mathematics and biology may sound strange at first to the public. But if you find yourself in a situation where you need to explain why certain decisions are being made, please take the time to do so. Articulate the role of predictive mathematical models, but not as something magical, even though they might seem so at times. Rather that they are based on our understanding of the physical and biological processes that underly the spread of this disease.
We are a diverse group of scientists and educators who work at the interface of many disciplines not just epidemiology. Our society does have a dedicated subgroup in Mathematical Epidemiology and I encourage you join them if you are interested in this area of research or if you want to learn more. We also have 7 other subgroups covering everything from development to oncology and more - I’m extremely proud of our research diversity.
The purpose of this email was to shine a little light and say thank you, to celebrate the wonderful discipline we are part of and highlight the important role mathematical models are playing right now. We are fortunate in many ways, with our ability to more readily work from home than most disciplines. We can make predictions about disease dynamics without ever actually treating a patient or being forced to make difficult decisions in medical care. We can run thousands of realisations of an experiment in a fraction of the time it would take in real life. We can make rigorously constrained predictions about the spread of an epidemic and how to slow it down.
Ultimately the countermeasures needed to control and end this pandemic will rely on biomedical research on drugs and vaccines. But again, their impact can and should be studied through the lens of mathematical modelling. I would be remiss if I didn’t give a special thanks to our colleagues, friends and family members in the medical profession. Without their frontline action flattening the curve becomes meaningless.
Stay safe, stay home and celebrate mathematical biology!
-Sandy Anderson, SMB President