Disease Detector

October 22, 2012Biology of global health major Sarah Kramer (C’14) recently won a Clare Boothe Luce Scholarship for Women in Science and Mathematics. A prestigious source of private support for women in science, mathematics, and engineering, the scholarship will help Kramer fund tuition as she continues her research in the biology department.

Kramer traces her passion for biology to her childhood. At home she grew up learning from her father, a doctor, while in school she was introduced to projects about illness and treatment of the human body.

“Specifically, I want to go into epidemiology, the study of how diseases spread. I first got interested in that in ninth grade,” Kramer said. “I was doing science Olympiad competitions, and they had a specific competition called ‘Disease Detectors,’ which [involved] testing students or educating students about how epidemiologists check or investigate outbreaks of infectious diseases. That’s when I really got interested in it.”

Kramer is also working toward a minor in math, which has long been a favorite subject. Math, she says, lends itself to practical applications within biology.

“I think with things like epidemiology and research, where there tend to be more statistics and things like that, [math] just seems relevant,” Kramer said, “especially because now I’m working in a lab that does mathematical modeling of epidemics.”

Kramer conducts her lab research with Assistant Professor Shweta Bansal, who joined the biology department this summer and helps Kramer understand pathogen behavior.

“Dr. Bansal and I work on modeling infectious diseases with mathematics, so we use computers to learn how diseases spread through a population and then work on different interventions that can slow down or stop the spread,” Kramer explained. “I want to keep doing that for the next couple years, and I also hope to work on my thesis next year in that lab.”

For her thesis, Kramer plans to study influenza. She believes that the handful of big flu outbreaks throughout history can shed light on which vaccines and antiviral drugs are most effective.

“With the flu, looking at old pandemics is important to inform my knowledge of what we should do if there’s another pandemic,” Kramer said. “We only have [a flu outbreak] about three times a century, so you really have to look into the ones that have happened in the past.”

Epidemiology fascinates Kramer because it is so different from most medical sciences. Usually, medicine focuses on the mechanics and symptoms of disease or on how disease works inside the body and manifests after invading. But epidemiologists look at patterns of transmission—how disease is passed from person to person.

“I’m mostly interested in viruses. Viruses can’t be cured, so it’s really important to stop them from spreading because, other than that, there’s not a whole lot you can do about them,” Kramer said. “You can’t even see a virus—it’s barely alive and yet it can spread through an entire population and cause a lot of destruction.”

Eventually, Kramer would like to become an epidemiologist who travels between local, national, and international hot zones—areas with high rates of infection—in order to better understand illness and to save lives. Although her “ideal” job might jeopardize her safety, she would have the chance to help communities stop the spread of disease.

“I’m not sure what exactly the career would be called,” Kramer said. “Whenever there’s an outbreak or some sort of infectious disease, whenever there’s just a bunch of people getting some disease that isn’t normally around, I’d like to be one of the people who go down and investigate and try to figure out, ‘Where did this disease start? Who got it first? How did it spread among this population? And what do we do to stop it from spreading any further?’”

—Brittany Coombs