JOHNSON CITY (February 21, 2013) – A new, simulated world created by Iqra Ahmad, a student in East Tennessee State University’s Honors College, enables her to study the spread of infectious disease among virtual people who exist there, and her method of research could someday lead to a better understanding of how disease spreads in the real world – and how it can be stopped.
Ahmad, a senior ETSU Honors-in-Discipline student who is majoring in biology and international affairs, uses a computer-based tool called agent-based modeling and simulation (ABMS). By adapting software originally developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology to make video games, Ahmad created a three-dimensional environment in which some people carry disease and some do not. She can study their interactions and how those interactions lead to the spread of disease and quantify the results to provide real-world projections.
Ahmad worked with her faculty mentor, Dr. Istvan Karsai, to create her as-yet-unnamed world. She is among several ETSU undergraduates who developed poster presentations of their research and traveled to Nashville earlier this month to present their findings to members of the Tennessee state legislature.
Karsai, an associate professor in the ETSU Department of Biological Sciences, is ideally suited to be the faculty mentor for Ahmad, who has an in interest in epidemiology and plans to pursue a medical degree after her undergraduate work. Karsai is a member of and past director of the ETSU Institute for Quantitative Biology, which counts mathematical epidemiology and modeling in biomedical science among its areas of focus.
The creation by Ahmad resembles the computer game SimCity, which began in the late 1980s and charged players with developing a city and increasing such staples as infrastructure, industry and production, while also keeping the populace happy.
“This whole artificial world is very simple, but it will get more and more complex,” Karsai said. “As in the real world, people move around; they meet with each other. They reproduce. They die. And as they move and interact, Iqra can track the spread of infectious disease.”
Ahmad is still adding layers to her project, which will be the basis for her Honors thesis.
“We’ll be programming specific diseases into the environment as we expand the parameters,” Ahmad said. “And we’ll offer individuals the opportunity to become vaccinated to see the effects of vaccination, to see if it reduces the spread of disease, or to see if a specific disease is eradicated altogether after a number of years.”
Through randomization of individual actions, the power of choice for the residents of Ahmad’s world will also become a more significant variable over time.
“We’ll create a hospital populated with doctors and nurses, but where you’re located in the world will have some bearing on whether you choose to go to the hospital or not,” said Ahmad, who is president of the ETSU Student Government Association. “Because this simulation allows us to program so many different parameters, we’ll be able to explore how a population may react to various infectious diseases in the short term and the long term.”