ASU PhD graduate uses mathematical modeling to benefit public health

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. Nao Yamamoto Nao Yamamoto

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

Nicole Pomerantz

Communications specialist, School of Human Evolution and Social Change


ASU lecture series showcases industrial engineering

Inaugural Douglas C. Montgomery Distinguished Lecture at ASU features Harriet B. Nembhard

April 24, 2023

This month, the School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence, part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, presented the inaugural Douglas C. Montgomery Distinguished Lecture.

Generously supported by Douglas Montgomery, ASU Regents Professor of industrial engineering, the new lecture series serves as a forum for the exchange of current topics related to industrial engineering. Harriet B. Nembhard, a notable member of the industrial engineering community, presented the inaugural lecture on how to apply Quality 4.0 to higher education. Photo courtesy Erik Wirtanen/ASU Download Full Image

To kick off the first annual event, faculty, students and alumni joined guest lecturer Harriet B. Nembhard, dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Iowa and an ASU alumna.

A well-respected member of the industrial engineering community, Nembhard researches ways to improve complex systems in manufacturing and health care. She has held academic leadership positions at Oregon State University and Penn State, and her work has been recognized by election to the status of fellow of the American Society for QualityInstitute of Industrial and Systems Engineers and American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering.

Nembhard is also preparing for her new role as president of Harvey Mudd College, beginning July 1, 2023.

“I think Dr. Nembhard was an outstanding choice as the inaugural lecturer for this series,” Montgomery said. “It’s like we hit a home run.”

Kyle Squires, the ASU vice provost for engineering, computing and technology and dean of the Fulton Schools, kicked off the event, thanking Montgomery for his vision in creating the series to raise the profile of the industrial engineering program at ASU and noting that it was a great honor to introduce Nembhard.

Nembhard’s lecture focused on how higher education institutions can benefit from implementing Quality 4.0, a concept that aligns Industry 4.0 technologies — such as artificial intelligence, cyber-physical systems and big data analytics — alongside a robust skillset and competencies in critical thinking, collaboration and leadership. The end result improves the quality of an organization and the outcomes it creates.

“Quality 4.0 is something of a substrate for the way that I’ve approached leadership in many ways,” she said. “It addresses the challenges that academic leaders face from quality training to more technical challenges on the managerial side, and has influenced the way that I lead. I think it offers a lot for academic leaders to contemplate.”

She presented attendees with thought-provoking ideas, providing a basic understanding of Quality 4.0 axes and giving examples of how they can be applied to improve higher-education processes.

Beyond being highly informative, her talk also offered an opportunity for discussion and creative thinking. Participants were challenged to brainstorm solutions for problems, including how Quality 4.0 can improve six-year graduation rates and how to humanize education at ASU.

Nembhard said she hopes that attendees reflect on Quality 4.0 and its potential to impact higher education, noting that her goal for the talk was to encourage reflection and spark curiosity for how industrial engineering can be applied to all areas of life.

“Industrial engineering is about systems, and higher education is a system we can work to improve,” she said. “We, as industrial engineers, have the capacity to influence how rapidly improvements and advancements can happen in the academy through the way that we do strategic thinking and develop a culture of quality and collaboration.”

For Nembhard, her background as an ASU alumna made the lecture experience even more fulfilling.

“Dr. Montgomery’s work was a model for the type of applied research in alignment with industry that really mattered to me early on in my career,” Nembhard said. “To come back to where, in some sense, a lot of the work that I’ve done in my academic career had started is really special. To be asked to give the inaugural lecture is a tremendous honor.”

Equally as fulfilling for Nembhard was the opportunity to recognize her late mother, Helen L. Eastman, also an ASU alumna who studied English. Nembhard dedicated the talk to her mother’s memory.

Nembhard said she hoped attendees would be motivated to more deeply understand the enterprise of academia and work to advance industrial engineering when envisioning the future of higher education.

Esma Gel, a Fulton Schools associate professor of industrial engineering and longtime friend of Nembhard’s, was also in attendance. The two have been friends for 25 years due to their involvement in the industrial engineering community.

“It’s wonderful to be able to see Harriet speak and be recognized for her contributions to this field,” Gel said. “She’s a great person, in addition to being a notable member of the industrial engineering community. So, it’s amazing to see someone like her be rewarded with these kinds of well-deserved opportunities.”

In reflecting on the inaugural lecture, Montgomery noted that his goal for the series is to increase visibility of the industrial engineering discipline, both at ASU and across the field.

“We have a really good industrial engineering program at ASU, and some really outstanding faculty with many noteworthy accomplishments,” he said. “I hope that this lectureship will be an opportunity to celebrate that and also showcase it more broadly to industrial engineering professionals.”

Annelise Krafft

Communications Specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering