High probability of success for Massey graduate

Dr Karen McCulloch returned to Auckland to graduate with a Doctorate of Philosophy in Mathematical Science this week.

Twenty-seven-year-old Karen McCulloch says she fell into her career in mathematics, almost by accident. The Hobart-born and bred Australian has graduated with a Doctorate of Philosophy in Mathematical Science.

“I moved to Melbourne to study mathematics as an undergraduate degree, but this really only came about by process of elimination – taking out the subjects I didn’t like - but I found myself really enjoying maths. Then I got to the end of my undergraduate degree and I wanted to keep studying but I didn’t know what. I did a six-week summer project looking at the role contact networks play in the transmission of infectious diseases, and really enjoyed that, so decided to do my honours after I completed my degree. That project focused on investigating the spread of rabies in domestic dogs. Everything started falling into place after that.”

So what brought Dr McCulloch to Massey? “Near the end of my honours year a PhD scholarship became available working with Professor Mick Roberts from Massey’s Institute of Natural and Mathematical Sciences, on a project titled ‘Predicting the epidemic curve’.

“My PhD research involved investigating how an infection can spread through different contact networks which could be representative of small communities. The outputs of this research included mathematical expressions for the final size probabilities [the probability of the total number of individuals in a given network ever becoming infected]. These probabilities were dependent upon how many contacts the initial infectious individual had and also the rate of transmission,” she says.

“We were able to write down mathematical expressions for the final size probabilities which hadn’t been done before. So we had a probability that any number of people within that network would become infected under different scenarios - depending on the transmission and recovery [duration of infection], as well as how connected individuals within the network were.”

Dr McCulloch talking about her research

While in New Zealand, Dr McCulloch lived on the North Shore, in Albany, Browns Bay and Torbay. “I loved the surrounding areas and being so close to the beach. Everyone I met at Massey was so friendly and welcoming and it didn’t take long to settle in, and I made some great friends who I still keep in touch with.

“While studying I also discovered how amazing some of the hiking trails in New Zealand are – in particular the Tongariro Crossing, The Pinnacles and the Hillary Trail in the Waitakere Ranges. I also did some part-time tutoring and lecturing of first year mathematics towards the end of my PhD which was really rewarding and a great experience.”

But her research isn’t over just yet. Last year, Dr McCulloch began working as a research associate at La Trobe University in Melbourne.

“This research is aimed at developing a spatial model for the transmission of Onchocerciasis between geographically separate regions. Specifically, we are investigating the effect of human and blackfly migration on the transmission of Onchocerciasis.”

Human Onchocerciasis, also known as river blindness, is one of nine neglected tropical diseases the World Health Organisation has targeted for elimination by 2020. It is caused by the filarial nematode (roundworm) Onchocerca volvulus which is transmitted to humans via blackflies.

“If you get bitten, and you happen to get this parasite transferred to you, there is no cure, there is some treatment but it is essentially a life long disease. It has a high morbidity and mortality rate, and is quite debilitating.”

While keeping up part-time work at La Trobe, Dr McCulloch is now also working at University of Melbourne, researching Hepatitis B.

“The aim of this project is to improve the equity of Hepatitis B treatment access and outcomes by informing spatial targeting of resources. This involves updating an existing mathematical model which outputs estimates of the current prevalence, by age group, of Hepatitis B in Australia. Models of the clinical disease pathway, including treatment, will be used to integrate spatially referenced data sources on interventions and outcomes, including the influence of mobility and treatment access on effective care delivery.”

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