Math to the Rescue
College of Science Grad Uses Mathematical Modeling Skills to Tackle Global Problems
Kelly Christensen wants to save the world with math.
When she started college at the University of Idaho, she didn’t realize she could. But she was entranced by her first-year math classes and decided to study math as well as physics, both majors in the College of Science.
“I love math because it’s universal. Wherever you go, two plus two equals four,” says Christensen, 21, of Ririe, Idaho. “Everything you do every day has math in it, and I think that’s really beautiful.”
Now, Christensen’s wrapping up an undergraduate research project that uses math to understand and fight disease, and she’s stepping into a graduate project exploring the same topic.
During her junior year, math professor Steve Krone encouraged her to apply to the Undergraduate Biological Mathematics program to pursue research. She received a grant to work with Krone on a project modeling the interactions of bacteria and the viruses that infect them, known as phages. Understanding this interplay could help researchers use phages to fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Christensen has loved working with mathematical models that describe the world’s physical, biological and social systems.
She also enjoys working with her fellow researchers. Mathematical research is challenging and often involves roadblocks that feel impossible but can be resolved by a group of people talking through the problem and proposing new ideas.
“Math research is a lot more human than I thought it was going to be,” she says.
After commencement, Christensen will begin earning her master’s in math at UI. She wants to study the way the spread of information about a disease affects the spread of the disease itself.
The results of such research can affect how groups like the World Health Organization send aid, determine quarantines and make other vital choices.
“It’s a way you can really impact lives,” Christensen says. “It’s really essential in helping stop huge epidemics.”
Christensen also is excited about her project’s academic boundary-jumping nature. She jokes that she “likes too many things,” and has heard that there’s no place in the world for someone involved in everything, but she thinks interdisciplinary work is the perfect place for her.
“If you get into interdisciplinary research, it’s like you find your niche,” she says. “I always tell my family it’s a bunch of nerds who like a lot of things, and we all get together and find out how to incorporate math in them or how they interconnect.”
In addition to her passion for world-changing research, Christensen also likes changing the world with science education. She’s a College of Science Student Ambassador, representing the college to future Vandals and sharing her college experience with them. She’s also involved in UI Science Outreach, which encourages elementary and middle school students to get excited about science by bringing demonstrations to their classrooms.
The first time Christensen visited a classroom was one of the highlights of her college career, and she never tires of UI Science Outreach’s most popular demo: blowing up a trash can using liquid nitrogen.
“The kids’ expressions when the cans blow up is just the best,” she says.
Christensen also served on a 2015 Alternative Service Break to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where she worked with Habitat for Humanity. In summer 2016, she’ll be the student leader for a trip to work with Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh, which provides free home repairs.
These experiences have kept Christensen grounded and involved in the world outside the university —and they’ve inspired her desire to use math to make the world a better place.
“I want to know if there’s something we can look at with a mathematical lens and maybe find a way to fix it or improve it,” she says.