Graduating doctoral student works across disciplines to tackle infectious diseases

May 5, 2014

Born in the outskirts of Havana City, Cuba, Oscar Patterson-Lomba came to the United States with the goal of becoming a scientist whose work changes people’s lives for the better.

“Leaving my family and country was the most difficult decision I had ever taken, but I was determined to come to a country where, with some luck, dreams and aspirations are reachable through hard work and commitment,” he says. portrait of Oscar Patterson-Lomba Download Full Image

Now, six years after emigrating, Patterson-Lomba is set to graduate from Arizona State University with a doctorate in applied mathematics for the life and social sciences.

During his time at ASU, he has earned a reputation as an exemplar of cross-disciplinary scholarship. He studies some of today’s most profound health issues using tools and concepts pulled from areas such as mathematical and computational epidemiology, evolutionary biology, dynamical systems, stochastic processes, statistics and network theory.

His research revolves around a variety of subjects related to the development of mathematical and statistical models to study the spread and evolution of infectious diseases. In particular, he has dedicated his research to unveiling and quantifying statistical patterns of sexually transmitted diseases in urban areas; studying the population-level impact of drug resistance on the effectiveness of treatment strategies; and developing novel statistical frameworks for the estimation of influenza incidence using digital syndromic data.

Patterson-Lomba points to his mother, a medical doctor, as one of his major inspirations. From her, he inherited an interest in medicine and health. Beginning at an early age, he was drawn to mathematics. Later, he “became excited to know that there was a subject that, through the use of mathematics, aimed to explain the phenomena around and within us: physics.”

Though he enjoyed studying physics, his interests shifted slightly when introduced to the idea of using mathematics to investigate biological phenomena, specifically in the area of cancer research. When he later discovered mathematical epidemiology and its role in public health policy, he found the perfect fit for his interests and ambitions.

“Mathematical epidemiology encompasses many of the subjects that I am fond of,” he explains. “In addition, it is a relatively new area – at least compared to physics – where interesting contributions can still be made, with the potential to have important implications on public health.”

At ASU, Patterson-Lomba has built an impressive academic foundation in mathematical epidemiology. Yet, his path to college was a challenging one.

After coming to the United States, he was unable to attend school immediately, so he found work wherever he could. He installed windows in Miami Beach condos, baked cupcakes in Manhattan and waited tables in New Jersey.

A year after his arrival, he signed up for two classes at Newark Community College. A semester later, he was accepted into Montclair State University and was able to finish his bachelor’s degree in physics, which he had initiated at Havana University, Cuba.

During his last year at Montclair, he attended the summer program offered by the Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. His intellectual gifts and dedication were noted by the institute’s founder and director, Regents’ Professor Carlos Castillo-Chavez.

He offered Patterson-Lomba a place in the applied mathematics for the life and social sciences program he directs in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

During his time as a graduate student at ASU, Patterson-Lomba has visited and worked at some of the most respected institutions in the country, including the Harvard School of Public Health, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Santa Fe Institute. He credits Castillo-Chavez with making these opportunities possible and linking him up with some of today’s most acclaimed scientists.

“Interacting with esteemed researchers, mentors and colleagues from these institutions and ASU has not only had an immense influence on my maturity and success as a scientist, but also on the refinement of the values that guide my existence, making me feel a step closer to the person I long to become,” he notes.

Sherry Towers, a member of Patterson-Lomba’s committee, has the highest praise for him as an individual and a scholar.

She points out, “He independently decided upon his thesis research topic, and he has always had a very clear vision of the importance of his work and how it fits into and extends the existing academic body of work on the subject.”

His 200-plus page dissertation on infectious diseases in the context of urban environments and drug resistance was hailed by Castillo-Chavez as “a beautiful contribution to theory, public policy and epidemiology.” The Regents’ Professor also says that Patterson-Lomba’s work exemplifies the university’s “access, excellence and impact” model.

Next up for Patterson-Lomba is a postdoctoral appointment at the Harvard School of Public Health. He intends to focus his efforts toward more immediate and direct ways in which to inform public health policy. He also plans to apply mathematical modeling to some unresolved research questions, such as understanding how inequalities in health care access can affect the spread and control of infectious diseases.

Rebecca Howe

Communications Specialist, School of Human Evolution and Social Change


Innovative course design shapes confident writers at ASU

May 5, 2014

We learn to write by writing.

For students in the “Stretch” first-year composition sequence on ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus, becoming proficient, confident writers means making writing a daily habit and getting comfortable with many of the technologies and tools that are available to reach audiences today. Shillana Sanchez, Mark Haunschild, James Wermers Download Full Image

The innovative course redesign that makes this possible was led by Mark Haunschild, instructor of English in the School of Letters and Sciences and coordinator of the Stretch Writing Program on the Downtown Phoenix campus.

The work of Haunschild and his team was recognized with one of two 2014 ASU Faculty Achievement Awards for Excellence in Curricular Innovation. The awards were presented to Haunschild and Cronkite assistant dean Mark Lodato by ASU President Michael Crow and Provost Robert Page Jr. on April 18.

The award is made for curricular innovations at ASU that meet the highest standards of the discipline or profession. In nominating Haunschild for the award, Barbara Lafford, head of the Languages and Cultures faculty in the School of Letters and Sciences, praised the team’s dedication to improving student learning outcomes and their meticulous attention to student feedback throughout the redesign.

Students in the Stretch program fulfill their ASU Introduction to Academic Writing requirement across two semesters, in WAC 101 and ENG 101 – ideally with the same teacher and cohort of students.

“We know this approach increases student retention as well as performance,” Haunschild says. “It allows for more writing practice, more socialization in academic writing, and builds the student’s academic self-image and confidence.”

In 2010 Haunschild and fellow writing instructor James Wermers, the Digital Humanities course manager in the School of Letters and Sciences, began informally sharing their teaching ideas and assignments with each other.

“We had similar approaches to teaching, and both of us enjoy working with the student populations in ASU student success and transition programs,” Haunschild says. “We felt we could be planning better assignments by working together.”

A year later, instructor Shillana Sanchez joined the School of Letters and Sciences working group. By then, the team realized they weren’t just collaborating, but redesigning curriculum.

“We were very much driven by best practices in the field of writing studies and a ‘let’s stop teaching like it’s 1992’ mindset,” observes Wermers. “We wanted to give students the chance to develop the writing confidence and digital literacy they’ll need in other courses and beyond ASU.”


To help build students’ confidence and acclimate students to the university learning environment, Haunschild and team have designed a lucid, easy-to-navigate Blackboard course shell consistent across sections and teachers. Learning goals are transparent and ever-visible – easy for students to keep always top-of-mind.

“We also coded the module pages to make them scalable and easily accessible on whatever device a student might be using, such as a phone or tablet,” Haunschild explains.

Students are immediately and continually engaged in the writing process and in electronic environments as they discuss and formulate ideas, then draft, revise and give feedback to peers. Quizzes along the way help students gauge their learning and self-progress.

“Students don’t have the ability to put things off – there’s no way to wait weeks and then dash off an essay due the next day,” he says.

The student writing outcomes have been terrific, as reflected in the quality and quantity of writing in the learning portfolios.

In the learning portfolio, students take the essays they’ve completed, reformat them for an online reader and write a final essay with writing advice to incoming Stretch students about the skills they’ll need to master in the course.

“So at the end of English 101, they’re essentially producing a handbook of tips for other beginning writers, rather than just telling me, the instructor, what they learned,” says Sanchez. “They’re talking to a real audience with real needs.”

Students upload these portfolios to the Google sites they create the first day in Stretch, ultimately producing a complete website showcasing their work.

Sanchez says students are invariably astounded at the amount and the quality of work they’ve completed across the two semesters.

“Most have written more than 100 pages of new content – whereas portfolios under the old design were 40 pages on average,” she notes.

Last week, a student in class said to Sanchez, "Wow. It didn't seem like that much work!"

“The scaffolding and activities of the redesign have allowed this to happen,” she explains. “Prior to the redesign, we were asking students to complete isolated tasks, individual writings, research out of context.

“With the redesign,” she continues, “students are able to make connections where they otherwise would not have, to create multiple layers of composition that inform other layers, and see the in-depth and complex process that is writing.”

While some students may enter Stretch feeling tentative about their ability to succeed, Haunschild says the program “creates students who have no fear of reaching out for resources on campus. They know there are limits to studying in isolation and that effective writers need feedback.

“Our Stretch participants have gone on to be employed on campus as tutors or instructional assistants, to found student clubs, to be student body president! There are all kinds of success stories,” he notes.

“The emphasis throughout the program is on gaining rhetorical awareness. Not on a particular form of writing, like lab reports or poetry, but teaching students to analyze the situation,” continues Haunschild. “Who is my audience? What is my task? That’s the kind of ‘far learning’ that serves someone well throughout their life.”

Haunschild, Sanchez and Wermers invite faculty and others who might want to learn more about the Stretch writing program redesign at ASU's Downtown Phoenix campus to get in touch with them directly.

Maureen Roen

Director of Communications, College of Integrative Sciences and Arts