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ASU PhD graduate uses mathematical modeling to benefit public health

Nao Yamamoto

Nao Yamamoto

April 24, 2023

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2023 graduates.

Nao Yamamoto is graduating from Arizona State University this spring with a PhD in applied mathematics for life and social sciences.

During her time at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Yamamoto’s research focused on mathematical modeling for infectious diseases, specifically COVID-19 and HIV.  

“If someone gave me $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, I would focus on improving our ability to respond to infectious disease outbreaks using network science and mathematical models,” Yamamoto said. “This would involve investing in the development and refinement of mathematical models to better understand the spread of infectious diseases and identify effective intervention strategies. It would also involve improving disease surveillance systems and increasing the capacity for rapid response to emerging infectious diseases.”

During her time at ASU, Yamamoto has received numerous awards, including the Outstanding Mentor Award, a Teaching Excellence Award and a Publication Grant and Travel Grant from the Graduate and Professional Student Association at ASU. 

Along with teaching several mathematics courses, Yamamoto published five papers on infectious disease modeling on HIV and COVID-19. 

“I have accepted a postdoctoral position at New York University School of Medicine, where I will continue working on HIV modeling,” Yamamoto said.  

ASU News spoke with Yamamoto about her time at ASU. 

Note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity. 

Question: Why did you choose ASU?

Answer: I chose ASU because I was interested in conducting research at the Simon A. Levin Mathematical, Computational and Modeling Sciences Center, and I was particularly interested in working with Professor Haiyan Wang at ASU.

Q: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

A: Ever since I watched the Broadway musical "Rent" at the age of 16, I have been interested in contributing to the fight against HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). During my undergraduate studies as a math student, I learned about exponential growth and logistic growth and was amazed by how a single additional parameter can change the dynamics. I realized I could apply this concept to HIV research, which is how I started working on mathematical modeling for infectious diseases.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: One thing that changed my perspective while at ASU is the importance of education. One of my mentors, who was a postdoc, told me, "Education always has a big impact; it changes lives." This statement challenged my previous belief that focusing on research and publishing papers was the hallmark of academic success. I used to think that publishing a paper in a top-rated peer-reviewed journal was the only way to make an impact in the world. However, working with the postdoc completely changed my view. 

Education is challenging but rewarding, sometimes even more than publishing a paper that may or may not have an impact. The mentor's words resonated with me because I realized the impact that mentorship can have on both the mentor and the mentee. I now believe that mentoring is not unidirectional, but rather benefits both parties and provides opportunities for personal and professional growth, as well as personal satisfaction.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: The professor who taught me the most important lesson while at ASU is Professor Haiyan Wang. Meeting him was the best thing that ever happened to me in my professional life. He taught me what it means to be an educator and mentor. He always had my career in mind and even took my mental health into consideration because he knows that success means little if it's at the expense of a person's well-being. I learned from him that it's essential to respect, accommodate and motivate individuals to help them grow.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you would give to students?

A: The advice that has been most helpful to me and that I would like to share with those still in school is to avoid limiting yourself and to listen to your own instincts. It's important to have faith in yourself and work hard, while also being kind to yourself. Remember that success looks different for everyone, and it's important to define what success means to you, rather than comparing yourself to others. Finally, don't be afraid to ask for help or guidance when you need it, and surround yourself with supportive and positive people who will help you grow and thrive. I believe that following these principles can lead to personal and professional fulfillment, based on my own experience.

Nao Yamamoto

Nao Yamamoto is graduating from Arizona State University this spring with a PhD in applied mathematics for life and social sciences. Photo courtesy Nao Yamamoto

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