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Mathematical idealist: UofM grad Ryan Sherbo hopes to help society, one equation at a time

June 11, 2018 — 

What do you get when you combine mathematics with a desire to make the world a better place? You get a University of Manitoba grad with a Bachelor’s degree in Honour Mathematics, a specialization in Applied and Computational Math, and dreams of using their knowledge to help others. Ryan Sherbo is off to Oxford this fall to study Mathematical Modelling for a year, and earn a Master’s degree.  

When asked why Mathematical Modelling, Sherbo explains, choosing a specialization had to be in an area that would have real-world application.

“A lot of math, no matter whether you’re doing very pure or very applied math, can be very abstract. I knew that I needed to keep sort of an end goal in mind. I needed to have some direction pointing me towards ‘how can this help people, or how can it help the world and make a positive impact?’ Keeping that in the back of my mind, I’d been doing some research, and I found out about a discipline called mathematical epidemiology. That seemed to me to be a really good way of bridging that gap of doing something that was mathematically interesting to me, but then also had implications for the broader world. It could have a direct impact on helping people and helping society.”

Mathematical epidemiology uses mathematical modelling to pose questions about the spread of infectious disease, as well as plot how infections move and discover what conditions lead to epidemics. It examines which conditions are changeable and which can be controlled in order to allow experts to predict and account for the spread of infectious disease. It can be used to reveal what factors we have control over that might allow us to mitigate the spread of infection.

Last summer, Sherbo got the chance to work at a company called BlueDot, which specializes in using big data, geographic systems and mathematical modelling to predict and describe the spread of infectious diseases such as Ebola and Zika virus. Formed in 2008, BlueDot was launched to help decision-makers prepare for and respond to infectious disease outbreaks.

“That was such a cool experience to take some of the stuff that I’d learned in my degree and some of the information that I’d gotten out of my courses and my research and take that to a real-world job. Getting to work there was such a fundamentally interdisciplinary experience, working with computer scientists and data specialists and geographers and doctors. Just the broadest range of people who could all be interested in and able to contribute to this specific field. That’s the sort of cool experience that I hope the people in science get to have.

“We talk about doing interdisciplinary research, and I think it’s vitally important. But I think it really took me having an experience like that to realize what interdisciplinary work could look like. It was because of the work that I was doing here, and the experiences that I had in research at the UofM that I was able to take that experience elsewhere.”

Sherbo has had a multitude of positive experiences at the University of Manitoba, especially volunteering on campus. Last year’s “Persistence & Vision” video project was a highlight, part of the Umanitoba STEAM initiative on campus. Sherbo’s voice and work were the basis for an animated video on undergrad research profiling Mathematical Biology. Sherbo enjoyed the chance to contribute to what eventually became an award-winning production.

“It was awesome to get to share in the work in that way. Something that I’ve really enjoyed and gotten a lot out of is the experience of taking my research and trying to translate it in a way that makes sense to people and that they can relate to, especially in a discipline like math that is so esoteric and so ‘out there’. It’s really valuable and really cool to be able to take that and drill down to something that people can relate to and grab onto and see the value in.”

Sherbo’s experience with Science Rendezvous was another chance to share science, but with a younger audience. Projects such as the musical staircase and the fruit keyboard, while not directly related to a Math degree, gave Sherbo a chance to make science accessible to young children. Likewise, the program called “Math Mania” engaged elementary and middle school kids with games and mathematical activities. Students were able to watch demonstrations and solve math-based puzzles, encouraging them to take more of an interest in math.

“I’d say I was always into math. Obviously, you take math right from day one when you’re in school, getting into different puzzles and problems. That was really cool for me, as someone who really appreciated that sort of extracurricular enrichment. It’s funny that I can trace back stuff I’m doing now to stuff I was interested in way back.”

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