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Math Can Help Us Fight Global Diseases—But Only If We Work Together, Says AAAS Fellow Abba Gumel

What can the world of mathematics do for us? For one, it can prove theorems and solve puzzling questions in the world of physics, says mathematical biologist Abba Gumel, Ph.D. But the 2022 AAAS Fellow is far more interested in what it can do for human health—how it can help us tackle diseases, prevent their spread, and save lives. In short, how mathematics can change the world? 

headshot of AAAS Fellow Abba Gumel
AAAS Fellow Abba Gumel, Ph.D. Photo credit: Rhonda Olsen, ASU.

Over the last few centuries, mathematicians have been predominantly occupied with trying to solve the problems of physics, says Gumel, a professor and the Brin Endowed E-Nnovate Chair in Mathematics at the University of Maryland, College Park. Yet it’s biology “where the action is now” for mathematicians, who can use mathematics to simulate biological processes.

“Biology gives us mathematicians a rich collection of challenging problems to work on, but we mathematicians also give biologists rigorous mathematical approaches—modeling, rigorous analysis, data analytics and computation—to provide insight into the things they cannot do in the lab,” says Gumel.

One of those applications is understanding how diseases spread in populations and how society can effectively control or mitigate them—research questions that have informed the work that Gumel and his team carry out today for diseases like COVID-19, Ebola, Zika, and malaria. Working in collaboration with public health professionals, social scientists, and epidemiologists, his team uses mathematical modeling to identify human interventions—such as masking, vaccination, public health campaigns, and quarantining—that have the greatest impact on controlling specific diseases.

Gumel also studies how human-driven climate change affects the global distribution and burden of vector-borne diseases. He has found that the population abundance of the vector that transmits malaria (Anopheles), for example, is “greatly dependent on climate change,” inflicting deadlier disease when local temperatures reach between 28 and 30 degrees Celsius. This is owing to the fact that the lifecycles of the vector and the parasite (Plasmodium) that causes the disease are entirely dependent on fluctuations in local climatic variables, notably temperature.

The mathematical biologist’s research questions mentioned above are ones that rely heavily on global collaboration for answers. It’s part of the reason why Gumel is so passionate about increasing international partnerships in STEM­. He sees the inclusion of global voices in science, particularly of those on the continent of Africa, as intrinsic to the advancement of mathematical biology. Making science accessible for everyone and creating opportunities for scientists around the world to bring their scientific contributions to the table is the only way that the global community can tackle the greatest public health challenges of its time, he emphasizes.

“You cannot do things in silos if you want to solve the most important problems in the world,” says Gumel. “Human diseases show that we're all in this together. If we do not work together collectively as humans, we all become vulnerable to things happening in ‘far away’ places.”

Born in the Jigawa state of Nigeria to a family of educators, scientists, and inquiring minds, Gumel recalls his own mathematical education beginning when he was just a toddler, sitting in the back of his uncle’s high school arithmetic class. He grew up seeing numbers, and although he was too young at the time to understand the meaning of the geometries and shapes he saw scratched into the blackboard, they became very familiar to him, says the AAAS Fellow—so much so that when his teachers would ask him what he wanted to do when he grew up, his answer was always the same.

“I always knew I wanted to deal with numbers and figures and all that,” says Gumel. “It was mathematics, right from the very beginning.”

Gumel’s undergraduate studies at Bayero University in Nigeria taught the scientist the fundamentals of mathematics, but it was his Ph.D. at Brunel University London that introduced him to the real capability of numbers and an entirely different application for them—how they could be used to change the world for the better. There, his advisors were studying how to cure certain skin illnesses with ointment, using math.

“I thought, my goodness, you mean I could use mathematics to understand how things work in the real world, explain the universe, save lives? I was so hooked, and that’s how it started for me,” recalls Gumel.

Today, the scientist has received numerous awards and honors for his contributions to the field of mathematics—he is an elected Fellow of the American Mathematical Society, the African Academy of Sciences, and Nigerian Academy of Science. His 2020 paper, To mask or not to mask: Modeling the potential for face mask use by the general public to curtail the COVID-19 pandemic” won Infectious Disease Modeling’s Best Paper Award and was cited more than 1,200 times. Since 2005, Gumel has served on the African Scientific Committee for the African Institute of Science and Technology. It is a Pan-African initiative spearheaded by the Nelson Mandela Institution that aims to connect young, talented African scientists and engineers with some of the best academics around the world, which he cites as one of his proudest accomplishments to date. The goal is for the well-trained young African scientists to contribute to the development of a sustainable knowledge-based economy, rooted in excellence in STEM, for the continent of Africa.

Gumel describes his joining to the rank of AAAS Fellows as a “huge, huge honor,” not only for  himself but for his collaborators around the world, a team that includes high school, undergraduate, and graduate students as well as colleagues.

“It’s really not for me alone,” says Gumel. “The fellowship nomination might have my name on it, but it’s really due to the hard work of people around the world who’ve played a major role in my own research and career.”