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Student studies HIV at prestigious institute
July 30, 2012
|Kelly Hennessey '13 is developing mathematical models to predict the early evolution of HIV strains as part of the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis.|
This summer Kelly Hennessey '13 is one of 18 students selected to participate in the highly competitive Research Experiences for Undergraduates program at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS), where her research is contributing to scientists' understanding of the early stages of HIV infection.
The eight-week program, which is held at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, gives undergraduate students the opportunity to work alongside postdoctoral researchers and university faculty members as they explore topics at the intersection of mathematics and biology. This interdisciplinary research program is a perfect fit for Hennessey, who is majoring in math and biology and has a concentration in statistics.
Hennessey is working with two other undergraduate researchers as they develop mathematical models to predict the early evolution of HIV strains. Creating accurate models can be very difficult because, as Hennessey explains, HIV has "a high mutation rate and [the] potential to form new genetic sequences through recombination." These mathematical models will help scientists understand how the virus can survive despite the immune system's strong response to the initial infection.
The NIMBioS project has challenged Hennessey to think deeply in all three of her areas of study. "It is a combination of understanding the biological foundation of the system, creating a mathematical model that accurately represents the system, and then applying that model to match real data," she says.
Another challenge has been translating the mathematical models into computer code. "In one of our first orientation meetings a staff member joked that for every hour you spend writing computer code, you'll spend three hours debugging it," Hennessey says. "That, more than anything, has proved true. But the breakthrough moment when the code runs and the model does what you want is just wonderful."
After completing her senior year, Hennessey hopes to continue studying disease dynamics as she pursues a dual degree in medicine and public health. The NIMBioS program has given her the perfect chance to participate in the same type of research she will do in graduate school and beyond.