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Graduating doctoral student works across disciplines to tackle infectious diseases

portrait of Oscar Patterson-Lomba
May 05, 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.

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.