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Interview with Dr. Stacey Smith?


📷 UOttawa, ISSP

Journalist: Amy Stewart


Amy: Welcome to SciSection! My name is Amy Stewart and I am the journalist for the SciSection radio show broadcasted on CFMU 93.3 FM radio station. We are here today with Dr. Stacey Smith?, a professor in the

Department of Mathematics and Faculty of Medicine at the University of Ottawa. Thank you so much for coming on the show today!

Dr. Smith?: Ah thanks so much for having me.

Amy: So to get us started, why don't you give us a brief rundown of who you are, your career, and how you ended up in your field?

Dr. Smith?: Yeah so I'm a professor of biomathematics, so that means I use mathematics to study infectious diseases. And I've been studying pandemics and vaccines for more than 20 years now, so it was quite amusing when Covid came along and suddenly it's in my backyard and everyone's an expert and all sorts of things for something I've been doing for a long time. I'm at the University of Ottawa, I'm in the Department of Mathematics and also the Faculty of Medicine.

Amy: Awesome, thank you. So I think I read on your website that you're also from Australia, so you made the trip all the way over. That’s pretty awesome we're glad to have you at the University of Ottawa.

Dr. Smith?: Yeah I originally came to McMaster University to study, so I came over to do my Masters and Ph.D. and then I loved Canada so much I ended up staying. I mean I had a little detour to the USA for a few years, but yes, ended up back in Canada which was awesome.

Amy: Well we're happy to have you. So right now, what is the current focus of your work and research?

Dr. Smith?: So, I look at a lot of different diseases, so of course Covid is a big thing, so I'm working on a lot of covid stuff, but I'm also very interested in neglected tropical diseases. So lots of diseases affect a lot of people who don’t have money or power and therefore there's not a lot of effort being put into them. I mean it's fascinating watching the socioeconomic issues that just kick in when diseases happen. So of course Covid comes and we invest massive amounts of money and time and effort and so on, in order to counteract Covid. But there are many people suffering from all kinds of diseases which are arguably much worse and they don't get this kind of time, and effort, and money, and so on. So one great thing about mathematics, I mean of course mathematics is very powerful it can be used to do amazing things like predict the future, but I think the greatest thing about it is of course it's cheap, and so you don’t need to do giant field studies and get these grants for anything, you can just start working and so that means you make some actually decent predictions based on just sort of a general understanding of the biology. So, that means we can work on projects that other people can't necessarily do. So I'm very interested in basically using math to help the world, that’s really always been my goal and I love that.

Amy: That is so awesome, you get to help a lot of people and you get to spread the word about these different diseases that maybe people wouldn’t know about and you get to do it like you said without costing very much money. Ok, your work must be especially pertinent these days with the ongoing pandemic, tell us about some of the research and publications you have done regarding COVID-19?

Dr. Smith?: So very, very early in the pandemic and by this I mean basically day one, the University of Ottawa came to me and they said "we have no information, we don’t know what to do". This was March 12th 2020 and the University said "do we shut down? Do we go to a half and half model? What should we do?". And they basically said "We haven't seen any modelling that basically makes very concrete predictions about if you have a single case on campus, how long until the first outbreak basically, how long until the first death, how long until whatever?", and so they basically sent an email to a bunch of us, everyone else was busy that day, I happened to be free, so I said "sure I can work on this". So I did that in like one day. and so you know normally research takes a long time but this was like crunch time And so, I delivered it to them at about two in the morning and said, "actually I've answered all your questions and of course we don’t have all the data", so the great thing about math is you can do many options at once so I said, "here's the best case scenario, here's the worst case scenario, and so on". The very next day they shut down the campus completely. So basically it was a few hours later, and we were one of the first campuses that shut down and this was not a thing that was necessarily happening at the time. It was very unknown as to what the best course of action was and so basically the University said "we're taking this very seriously, we're shutting down because we've seen the modelling". So that kind of got me started in Covid-19 , and I've done lots of other things. Because I'm an expert in vaccines and basically peoples reactions to vaccines, this has been a prime time for me. I mean I wish it wasn’t. I wished that everybody just kind of got the vaccine and that was it, but of course like conspiracy theories and irrational fears of vaccines are very strong and they’ve been strong for 100s of years. Right, this is not new, none of this stuff is new, the same talking points for conspiracy theories have been happening for generations for now, some of the nouns change but the overall attitudes don’t. There've been antivax people since as long as there've been vaccines, there were huge protests in the 1920s against the smallpox vaccines, and so none of this is new. And yet, we have access to a lot more information than we've ever had, so that makes it an interesting challenge to think about. So I'm really super interested in people and I really find peoples reactions to diseases absolutely fascinating, sometimes frustrating, but absolutely fascinating.

Amy: Wow! That is awesome how you combine the social aspects and the mathematical aspects of the pandemic and bring it together to really help the University find a plan and a way to battle the pandemic. That’s awesome. My next question for you is: at the beginning of the pandemic, I'm sure you and many other people were hearing the common phrase "flatten the curve". Is there a mathematical justification behind that and how accurate is it, or is there a better way to put it?

Dr. Smith?: The flatten the curve line was a pretty effective one, essentially there's only so many beds in the ICU. And the hospital system as a kind of default operates almost at capacity all the time, because this is a good cost saving measure and even in Canada this one of the capitalist models, we are basically trying to minimize empty beds all the time. And in a non-pandemic era, that’s fine because most of the time people are not in hospitals. The problem is you have to sometimes be ready for when really bad stuff happens and the pandemic means you're going to have a lot more people coming into the hospital and so there are two ways to deal with this. One, is you flatten the curve by basically trying to minimize the number of people coming in, the other way is you just build more hospitals, that’s what they did in China, and so you could open capacity, that’s another possibility, but that’s not one we chose to do. So the flatten the curve for the constraints of the system was a pretty good idea, I just would like to sort of open the question of whether that’s the only idea that we should be doing.

Amy: Ok and switching gears a little bit, I saw you did a lot of research on HIV/AIDS and I just wanted to know what are some different ways you have used mathematical models to study this epidemic, and what are some of your most interesting findings regarding it?

Dr. Smith?: So HIV/AIDS is a fascinating disease, a really terrible one in so many ways, and I grew up in the shadow of this because this was suddenly this scary new pandemic at a time when I was just becoming a teenager, I think. And so, it was absolutely terrifying to all of us, as I'm sure Covid-19 is to younger people today. And one of the funny things about Covid is that my colleague and I were talking at the very beginning of it and she said, "should we get into this new disease", and we sort of said "well I suppose we could but it's not very interesting". And I kind of stand by that, it's not very interesting, there's nothing that interesting about Covid except for its ability to spread. And what you want with a pandemic is you don’t want an interesting disease, you want a really boring one that you know what to do with. And Covid is pretty boring, right, Covid is a textbook respiratory disease: it spreads pretty far, pretty easily, people breath and that’s how they catch it and there's nothing fascinating about that in some ways. So that means all the standard things work, that’s why masks, and distancing, and so on work. But with HIV it's not a boring disease at all, it’s a totally fascinating disease which is what makes it so difficult. We came up with the Covid vaccine within the first year of the disease, it's been 30 odd years for HIV, we are no closer to an HIV vaccine because it’s a really, really tricky problem. So I think it also taps into a lot of the social stuff. which I'm fascinated by, so for example when HIV comes along of course there's a lot of homophobia, and there's a lot of rejection of people who might seem to be diseased, and so whether they are or not is sometimes barely relevant, but it’s a narrative approach to disease. Right, people say "well you know there's a scary disease that I have absolutely no control over and I don’t want to catch this disease, what shall I do?". And what people often do, and they do it in Covid too, is they fall back on the super power that humans have, which is the ability to tell stories. And so they tell stories about the disease. And if you can tell a powerful enough story, you can wipe this disease out of your consciousness, because if you basically say "well this won't affect me because I'm a whatever person, I'm a moral person and the disease is affecting the impure, then I cannot be infected. And therefore, this disease basically goes away for me". And if that’s true, sure, but the problem is whether it's true or not takes a second tier to the narrative. And so HIV/AIDS really suffered from this, because a lot of people said "oh well it first only seems to affect men who have sex with men and so, therefore since that’s not me, therefore I won't get the disease". But then they sort of keep going with the therefores and well therefore we need to ban things, therefore there's all these groups that are undesirable and it wasn’t just gay sex' it was you know at the time people from Haiti and these days it's very rapid in Africa, and so there's a lot of racism involved and yeah there's all kinds of things that happen. And so trying to get a handle on all this and sort of quantify stuff is very difficult, but to me that’s the real challenge and that’s what makes it interesting.

Amy: That’s amazing how part of the mathematics and modeling diseases includes taking into account these different factors like homophobia, like racism, and that makes it very difficult I'm sure to model and predict and find ways to treat it effectively.

Dr. Smith?: Yeah, again it absolutely does and I also want to stress this is not something that's been done that much, because I think a lot of people kind of threw their hands up in the air and said "it's all just too hard so let’s just not kind of think about that so much", and I think part of the problem is when people get Ph.D.'s in a subject they often don't know much about other related subjects. So for example, I did my Ph.D. in math and then I had to learn biology along the way and you know I'm not an expert in biology, I don’t have a Ph.D., but I know enough about it to kind of get through the stuff I need for the disease. And by chance, I have a kind of informal background in Communication Theory and Women's Studies and so on. So therefore, I actually knew a lot more than sort of the average mathematical modeler about how to think about structures in human societies and so on. And this is just not something that’s ever taught, because we keep theses disciplines very far apart. If you have a science degree you don’t learn much about social sciences and vice versa. So, I think it's absolutely crucial that if we’re going to manage real problems, that we have to deal with them holistically. You have to deal with the whole problem, you can't just deal with one piece of it. It's fine if you invent a vaccine, but if nobodies going to take it because they're all worried about "5G" or something ridiculous, then what's the point of your vaccine? You have to deal with these problems as they come and so I think that’s why it's imperative that people actually get a broad education. And I feel very fortunate that I was able to get that, but that just happens to be my case and we need to make that systemic.

Amy: Your career really seems to give the whole picture of what it means to be working in math and to be a mathematician. I mean you show all the different factors, it’s not just being able to do math, it is the biology, the social aspect, it's impressive that that all goes into a math career. And coming off of that, you seem to have a very unique career in math, one of the most notable and unique topics you’ve worked on is zombie apocalypses. Let's hear a little bit about that, your inspiration for that project, and how you won a Guinness world record?

Dr. Smith?: Yes, so, the zombie disease is a really funny one because obviously it’s a fake disease and what I'd done was I said to my class, I was teaching an advanced class in disease modelling, I said "you can do your final project on any disease you want", basically develop the mathematics of the disease and I don’t care which disease and so basically pick you favourite one or whatever and people did HIV, and malaria, and Ebola, and all kinds of fun things. And then one group said "could we do zombies?". And they later told me they thought I would shoot this down, they said "there's no way the professor is going to go for this", but what they hadn't counted on is that I'm such a science fiction nerd that I was like "oh I love it, this is great". And the reason I loved it immediately is because I thought this was a great teaching moment. I thought for the final presentation of this course, this will be really fun, it will teach the other students how disease modelling works in a really accessible way. And I only saw as far as that. I was only thinking of the final project of the course. But what I realized later was, oh, this of course doesn't just apply to students this applies to everyone, because doing zombies basically reaches people where they live, even though people aren't living in a zombie apocalypse, zombies are a fun thing in the media that everybody knows about. You know, my mother who's never watched a zombie movie knows what zombies are. And so people were able to be like "oh cool zombies that’s fun", whereas people did not really want to think much about an awful disease that might be coming to affect them some day. Now of course that indeed actually happened where as zombies won't happen, but still we'd rather think about kind of fun things, you know we like our scares to be amusing and entertaining rather than too real. And so the zombies gave as a kind of framework for teaching disease modelling, a lot of people came to me, and said "I never knew there was even such a thing as mathematical modelling of diseases until you did the zombie stuff. And wow, now I'm totally inspired and now I want to do that myself". And lots of people told me they went into disease modelling specially because of the zombies. I just absolutely love that, I can reach out to people in a fun and entertaining way and also they can learn something. Because I think that sometimes we lean way too much into one or the other, and again these things were often kept very separate, like you could have a good time at the movies but you're expected to turn your brain off, but you don’t have to turn your brain off at the same time. On the flip side, academia is often done as very dry and boring, and it's kind of no fun at all, it's just something you kind of have to learn and that’s not true. It can totally be fun and entertaining and all sorts of things. So yeah, I was really pleased with that. And the Guinness World Record was so funny to me because we didn’t even know about it, it just got announced one day. It's one of the lesser Guinness', they sort of have the main ones and then these reserved ones, I guess. My student had found it and it was basically a Guinness World Record for the first ever model of a zombie invasion. And I thought well if it’s the first then that means no one can supersede us, so hooray, we have a Guinness World Record. So I was very amused by this. And I think it was one of those fun media things that was happening because it was a very slow news month when the zombies were happening, so it was in all the news papers, and T.V, and everything, and it was the number one story on the BBC, it was just hilarious to me that people were going crazy for mathematics. Like it was just bizarre that people were really, really going head over heels for something that I was just kind of doing in my spare time. So yeah it was a fun thing, I feel like I really caught lightning in a bottle there.

Amy: That’s awesome! It seems like a really great way to bring math to people who just see it in that stereotypical light of not being so entertaining, and you really showed it that it can be something special, and that's something everyone can relate to. That’s awesome.

Dr. Smith?: I think one of the key things for me actually was because I had a very working class background, I didn't know what university even was, and you know my brothers a plumber, my dad was a carpenter, my mums a secretary, like we didn’t have any kind of academic background. And because we grew up in Australia, tuition was very low, and there were scholarships and so on, and so I was able to get through the system in a way that I probably wouldn’t have if the fees are what they are today. And so I think the problem is that we are loosing out on perspectives that we aren't getting. Because if everyone's living in their ivory tower, then they're not sort of seeing this bigger picture. And I think I was very fortunate because I was so working class, I had to explain what I was doing to my family, and friends, and so on and they did not want to know the details, they were like "don’t tell us any math, do not explain in too much detail, we don’t want to know it". So you had to basically kind of bring it down to a level that people who hated math were able to understand and that was a real challenge, it took me many years to learn, but I feel like those skills really paid off

Amy: I just love how it inspired so many of your students to consider a career in disease modelling. So, for my final question, if you were to try to inspire more students to go into that, what would you say to convince them?

Dr. Smith?: I think there's a real need for experts these days. I think that the kind of conspiracy stuff around vaccinations for Covid and stuff has really proved that we need people who really know what they're talking about. Alright, and it is not enough to just kind of do some afternoons research on the internet, alright, this is a really bad model. I would absolutely love it if somebody came along who knew nothing about my field and basically asked insightful questions, and had insights, and came up with answers we've never thought of. But I would like to stress, it has never happened. I have never seen this happen. I mean science is often updating itself and science is often incorrect, but the people who discover that are other scientists. Alright, it’s not "joe average" sitting at home and I think the problem is that movies and so on have all made this kind of narrative that "joe average" with common sense can see things that experts miss, and actually, it's not true. Right, in reality it does not happen, but that’s not the way that people perceive things. They perceive things from what they’ve seen and what they've seen is a generally very consistent narrative that the average person is just as good as an expert and I'm sorry it's just not true. And so what we do, is we need more experts. So I desperately implore people to study science, to investigate things not just on a superficial level, but on a deep level and it doesn't have to necessarily be through the traditional routes of academics, but it does have to be depthful and people are not good at depthful stuff, especially with the internet.

Amy: That’s a great answer, I'm sure we've all seen after this past year all the ignorance that has come out of the pandemic and how people try to do their own research, but it's never quite successful. I think you're right, we definitely need more experts and people who want to find the correct answers. Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with me Dr. Smith?. Learning about your career and research was a fantastic window into what the world of applied mathematics is. If anyone would like to read more about Dr. Smith? 's research, check out her website linked on the uOttawa Department of Mathematics and Statistics page. That’s it for this week of SciSection! Make sure to check our podcast available on global platforms and for our latest interviews.