A simulation of how coronavirus would spread in two cities with a 20000 population in each one. The red curve is the number of uninfected people, the green one is the number of recovered people, the yellow is the number of infected people and the blue one is the number of people who are in the incubation period.

When Summer Sheng ’21 returned to campus last spring, COVID-19 had just begun to make international headlines. As a math major considering pursuing a graduate degree in applied mathematics, it didn’t take him long to realize that a pandemic-based project would be relevant to both the emerging crisis and to him personally.

Sheng, who is from Shanghai, China, set out to design a project that would teach him new applicational skills while building on his preexisting knowledge. As such, he applied to conduct an Emerson research project aimed at predicting coronavirus infection rates.

Probability and Statistical Inference, a course taught by Assistant Professor of Mathematics and Statistics Clark Bowman, inspired Sheng’s approach to modeling the pandemic. Using what he learned from the course, Sheng conducted research and wrote code to compare potential infection rates in cities based on various factors. Under the guidance of Bowman, who also served as Sheng’s Emerson advisor, Sheng has created a report that demonstrates how the virus can be exacerbated or suppressed.

“We’re imagining a kind of scenario, in a city with population 10,000, [where] the government is going to enforce quarantine and contact-tracing ... [we’re testing] what the number of infected would be,” Sheng explained. “Also, we can compare to a city with population 10,000, but the government chooses to do nothing, what the infection number would be. We can do some comparison on all these kinds of scenarios.”     

Summer Sheng ’21

Major: Mathematics

Hometown: Shanghai, China

REad about other student research 

The project has enabled Sheng to further apply and develop technical skills that he learned in Probability and Statistical Interference. “When I do the project, it helps me to refresh the knowledge,” he said. “I know better how to put the knowledge into applications.”

Having applied to Hamilton for its reputation for forging close professor-student relationships, Sheng felt as if he benefited from Bowman’s advice and expertise. For example, Bowman helped him on both the finer details of the project and on how to approach research in general. “Professor Bowman told me you’re never going to finish what you’d expected. It’s going to take longer for you to finish what you want to finish,” he said.

Sheng said that his Emerson project has proved meaningful for him and increasingly important as the pandemic continues. “At first, I would never have expected the pandemic would go this far and [become] this serious. ... I feel like everyone has participated in this pandemic trying to save lives, and having such a project makes me feel like I’m participating in this rescue of humanity.”

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