Texas A&M researcher uses interdisciplinary modeling to help shape local health policy

Updated: Jun. 8, 2021 at 11:32 PM CDT
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas (KBTX) - A Texas A&M researcher is using mathematical modeling across disciplines that has helped shape local health policies throughout the pandemic.

Martial Ndeffo, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, used his experience modeling past outbreaks to influence his work on the COVID-19 pandemic. By combining models in mathematics and statistics with behavioral modeling in fields like psychology, he says problems can be approached in a more holistic way.

“Transdisciplinary modeling is a novel approach to modeling, especially as far as infectious diseases are concerned,” Ndeffo said. “As the name states, what you are really trying to do is not only a multi-disciplinary approach, but a cross-disciplinary approach. It definitely comes with a lot challenges, but it’s worth doing.”

Ndeffo’s work early in the pandemic focused on reopening the economy. The information from his modeling was used to shape health policies with state, county, and Texas A&M officials.

”What level do you reopen, and what kind of social distancing measures do you keep in place to keep the right balance? What is your objective? Is your objective to reduce death to a certain level? Is your objective to reduce the number of new cases?” Ndeffo said. “Given several metrics for the decision, what is the right balance, what is that sweet point, at which you say we can open the economy 25% or we can reopen at 75%.”

He says this transdisciplinary approach is particularly useful in navigating new and unknown situations because it helps people take perspectives into account that they have traditionally not taken into consideration.

“When we faces situations like this that are full of unknown, it becomes very important to take into consideration what does psychology see here in terms of people’s behavior that a mathematician doesn’t see,” Ndeffo said. “By bringing that together, you are more likely address a problem in such a way that it is more relevant from a societal perspective, which is important for policy making.”

Ndeffo says modeling is important because when people face an uncertain situation, there is often no better tool than a model.

“A model is a way you can do experiments and look at different scenarios,” Ndeffo said. “We cannot do scenarios with reality. We don’t have parallel universes. We can’t say we’re not going to put social distancing in this universe, and we’re not going to put masks in this one, and see which one does best then go back in time. But with a model we can do that. We can create this parallel universe and try these things, and then go to policymakers and say, ‘We think if you put two and two together, this is where we can get.’ That is one of the key aspects of models.”

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