Career Profile – Stacey Smith?

Degree: B.Sc. (HONS), Macquarie University; M.Sc., Ph.D., McMaster University
Position: Professor
Location: University of Ottawa

No, the question mark is not a typo, but rather how Stacey Smith? distinguishes herself in a world of Google searches. Though the name is unique in itself, it is Stacey’s research that truly marks her as a creative and innovative mathematician.

Stacey has never been interested in simple arithmetic, and says “I still can’t figure out the tip in a restaurant.” Though her interest in mathematics was originally piqued in high school when math class moved beyond calculations to more abstract concepts, it is the power of applied mathematics to solve real-world problems that has held her attention. Using what Stacey describes as the “language of math,” you can translate a biological problem into mathematical terms and create a mathematical model. “You can then analyze your model and come to a mathematical conclusion, which can then be translated back into the biology,” says Stacey. “This conclusion may be something that wouldn’t be obvious just by thinking through in the real world, but translating it into mathematics gives you access to logic and rigour.”

Given this penchant for solving real-world problems, it seems ironic that Stacey is best known for her research in an imaginary field: zombies. In 2009, she co-authored a paper detailing a mathematical model of a zombie outbreak that attracted a storm of media attention.1 Yet this research has more applications in reality than are readily apparent. The researchers had to create a model for an infection outbreak without relying on any existing models, an important practice in preparation for the outbreak of new diseases and epidemics. “By modelling zombies, we learn about the process of dealing with unfamiliar biology,” says Stacey. Stacey further explores the topic in her book Braaaiiinnnsss: From Academics to Zombies.

The zombie paper evolved from Stacey’s ongoing research into diseases. Her primary research focus lies in HIV modelling. Along with her research team from the University of Ottawa, she developed a mathematical model to examine how best to eliminate HIV/AIDS worldwide.2 She has also published research on the importance of adherence to HIV treatments, and possible perverse outcomes of HIV vaccines.

Stacey also conducts research into what she calls ‘neglected’ diseases, for which no or very few mathematical models exist. Through mathematical models, says Stacey, mathematicians can “analyze intervention strategies, track the spread of the disease and determine which measures might work and which might be doomed to failure. All without costly clinical trials or long delays while data is collected.” Stacey further explores the topic of disease modelling in her textbook Modelling Disease Ecology with Mathematics.

Stacey’s current course load at the University of Ottawa includes a third-year course on disease modelling, whose enrolment skyrocketed in the time of COVID. She also teaches a first-year Calculus course for Life Sciences majors, which offers the challenge of teaching students who would prefer not to be in a math class. “By the end of the semester, what I have done is convince people why math is important,” says Stacey. “Although a mathematician or computer can solve the analytical problems, it’s only when the biologists and the mathematicians work hand in hand that truly useful mathematical models can be created.”

1. P. Munz, I. Hudea, J. Imad and R.J. Smith? “When Zombies Attack! Mathematical modelling of an outbreak of zombie infection” (Infectious Disease Modelling Research Progress 2009, pp.133-150).

2. R.J. Smith?, J.Li, R. Gordon and J.M. Heffernan “Can we spend our way out of the AIDS epidemic? A world-halting AIDS model” (BMC Public Health 2009, 9 (Suppl. 1): S15).