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Beth Sorensen
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Project addresses massive nonlinear computations for modeling difficult scenarios such as disease outbreak

Portland, OR (October 22, 2003)–Reed College has received a new grant, essentially a one-year extension of its previous, successful study of mathematical models in epidemiology, from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Richard Crandall, director of Reed’s Center for Advanced Computation and Howard Vollum Adjunct Professor of Science, Physics, is the project’s principal investigator, and Stephen Arch, L. N. Ruben Professor of Biology at Reed, serves as co-principal investigator. The initial study began in 2002 to research new tools to understand the movement of epidemics of deadly diseases such as smallpox, anthrax, ebola, and HIV through a population.

The previous (2002) grant involved collaboration with the Multnomah County Bioterrorism Taskforce, papers for publication, and a student-designed software program called "Conflagrator," intended to model epidemics. Through this work, student interns have gained valuable programming experience and have gained markedly from discourse with outside experts in the epidemiology field. The new grant, which began in summer 2003 and will conclude at the end of May 2004, allows for 10 additional Reed student interns, as well as faculty research. The amount of the new grant is $148,623.

"This extension will allow the team to build upon our developments and continue our research into the fundamental differences between discrete and continuous mathematical models, in the context of epidemiology and epi-reminiscent issues," says Crandall. "The project provides an innovative approach for undergraduate students in cross-disciplinary studies linking computational with biological sciences." In fact, he adds, "On this new grant cycle, massive computations will be used to model difficult nonlinear systems more generally–including, but not limited to, epidemiological issues. Some real computational power is now in the hands of the students and faculty, thanks to the largesse of DARPA and other supporters, such as Apple Computer."

Applying nonlinear mathematical models that incorporate theories of chaos and fractals–a new research area in this field–the Reed researchers are developing modelsof epidemics based on the occurrences and locations of infections, as well as statistics for incubation and contagion. Key elements in these efforts will be graphical visualizations of the models and the predicted evolution of an outbreak. Much of the new research will focus upon a discovery made on the previous grant: namely, that strategies for vaccination–or more generally the staving off of conflagration in nonlinear models–must of necessity depend on discrete computations, rather than classical, differential theory.

In particular, it was discovered that "survivor sets" in arbitrary outbreaks are not smooth, but rather exhibit a fractal (or "fractured") character understandable only through very recent nonlinear analyses. This effect, the students and faculty have found, occurs whether the conflagration be a forest fire or a smallpox outbreak. The implications for prevention and vaccination strategies are strong.

Apple Computer has provided high-quality studio displays and servers to assist with the massive-computation aspects of the project. The code is being executed on a clustering mechanism developed by Apple (largely engineered in the Portland, Oregon, area–and partially by Reed students and other academic sites) that essentially offers a supercomputer capability.

Richard Crandall is director of the Center for Advanced Computation at Reed College. He is a distinguished lecturer, author, and computationalist who has performed scientific computation for academic and industrial concerns, including Perfectly Scientific, Inc., and Pixar, Inc. In 1991 Crandall won the Computerworld Smithsonian National Award in the science category for work involving massive network computations. In 1999 he led a research team on the "Problem of F24," engendering the deepest computation in history–at that time–for a 1-bit yes/no answer. Crandall received his B.A. from Reed College and earned a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He became an assistant professor of physics at Reed in 1978. From 1987 to 1989 he was an educational fellow at NeXT, Inc., after which he held the position of chief scientist at NeXT Software, Inc. In 1998 he received the title of distinguished scientist, Apple Computer, to carry out industrial research at the Reed College Center for Advanced Computing. He was appointed Howard Vollum Adjunct Professor of Science, Physics, at Reed College in 1991.

Stephen Arch, a member of the Reed College faculty since 1972, was awarded the L. N. Ruben Professorship in Biology in 1995. He also holds an adjunct professorship in the interdisciplinary neurosciences program at Oregon Health & Science University, and he recently returned from a year as visiting professor of neurobiology at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany. Arch received his undergraduate degree in biological sciences from Stanford University, where he did special studies in neuroscience with Donald Kennedy. His earned his graduate degree in biology from the University of Chicago, then did neurobiological research as a postdoctoral fellow in the division of biology at the California Institute of Technology.

Reed College, in Portland, Oregon, is an undergraduate institution of the liberal arts and sciences dedicated to sustaining the highest intellectual standards in the country. With an enrollment of about 1,360 students, Reed ranks third in the undergraduate origins of Ph.D.s in the United States and second in the number of Rhodes scholars from a liberal arts college (31 since 1915).

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