How HLF changed my: Carrie Manore

BLOG: Heidelberg Laureate Forum

Laureates of mathematics and computer science meet the next generation
Heidelberg Laureate Forum

The COVID-19 pandemic forces us all to pause, reflect, and adapt. While the 8th Heidelberg Laureate Forum has been postponed to September 2021, this year’s Virtual HLF will take place from Monday, September 21 until Friday, September 25, 2020. Its motto: Traversing Separation.

An excellent opportunity to review seven successful years of HLF and to follow-up on some alumni and their path since then.

Who are you, where are you from and what is your scientific background?
I’m Carrie Manore, currently living in Los Alamos, New Mexico in the United States. I have a PhD in Mathematics with an emphasis in Ecosystem Informatics.

Photo courtesy of Carrie Manore

In which year did you attend the HLF and what were you doing back then?
I attended HLF in Fall 2014 and I was a postdoc at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana at that time.

What inspired you most during HLF?
I loved the diversity of thought among the prize winners and the diversity along many spectra of the young researchers attending.

What is your best memory you have from your stay in Heidelberg?
Landscape and architecture.

What has happened in your life since then and in which position are you currently working?
I’m now a staff scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and I have a 5-year-old son. I am leading multiple projects and have now mentored over 30 students and postdocs. One of the projects is about predicting mosquito populations to contain diseases they transmit, such as West Nile virus disease and malaria.

Which advice would you give the next generation of Young Researchers?
Enjoy the time and soak it up! Also, think about the wide variety of areas of study that benefit from deep mathematical knowledge…and find a place that you fit in that context. It could be proving theorems, understanding complex physics, predicting social outcomes, or determining optimal responses to an epidemic, among many other things. I’ve found that even if I’m not doing math explicitly, the mathematical way of thinking is very useful for tackling many problems.

Carrie Manore on her HLF experience.

How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your professional and private life?
I’m one of the team leaders for a large coronavirus modeling effort at LANL and we’ve been working on that full time since mid-January. I suddenly pivoted from my usual projects to working full time on modeling and understanding coronavirus while responding in real-time to requests at a state, federal, and sometimes international scale. We have a team of students and staff that are working on models ranging from Bayesian statistical forecasting, to agent-based models of the entire country, to nonlinear differential equation models. It’s very interesting and challenging to have to respond in real-time rather than at the slower pace of typical academic research. However, it’s also rewarding to be helping decision-makers get the information they need.

What is the most valuable lesson the pandemic taught you so far?
It’s very valuable to have multiple models and perspectives and interdisciplinary experts on board when trying to address a crisis in real-time for a virus that is completely new. As a mathematician, the desire for “perfect” has to be replaced with “good enough”, especially when there is a time crunch. We continue to improve our models and their parameters while also realizing that at some point we have to eat and sleep and spend time with our families! At first, we were hoping that this would be short term, but it seems this is more of a marathon than a sprint.

There is a variety of so-called “second-wave scenarios”, trying to predict the further development of the pandemic. As an expert on modeling the spread of diseases, what are your thoughts on that? How reliable are these models in summer 2020?
Any model that’s predicting further out than 4-6 weeks in the future is not a forecast but rather a projection under very specific assumptions about how people will behave, the policies that decision-makers will put in place, and how the virus will spread in a particular population. So, while these models can present reasonable potential outcomes, what happens will really depend on the decisions individuals and governments make, along with the tools such as testing and treatment that are available to us. And, of course, with a new virus, there are things we don’t understand, so surprising patterns are a possibility. One thing we have observed multiple times in multiple locations over the past several months is that SARS-COV-2 has the potential to spread quickly within susceptible communities, so expecting a second wave and planning for that would be prudent. However, I’m skeptical that anyone can truly forecast what will happen — rather we can provide scenarios under different assumptions.

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Jens-Steffen Scherer is a neuroscientist, science communicator, and moderator. Besides pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of Oldenburg, he works for the National Institute for Science Communication (NaWik) and the Südwestrundfunk (SWR). In 2018 Jens-Steffen won the 8th Science Slam of Oldenburg. LinkedIn

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