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June 6, 2008

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Boloye Gomero, a senior at Marymount University, won the first place prize for undergraduate research in microbiology -- a Frank G. Brooks Award for Excellence -- at the 2008 Biennial National Convention of the Beta Beta Beta National Biological Honor Society, held at the end of May at Northern Kentucky University.

Gomero's research uses mathematical modeling to help predict malaria control measures. Gomero, who is from Nigeria, has a personal interest in controlling the disease. "My father suffers from malaria," she explains, "and he sometimes has to be hospitalized." She provides the sobering statistics, "Each year, approximately five hundred million people suffer from malaria, and nearly one million die, mostly in developing countries." Gomero adds a cautionary note, "With global warming, malaria-infected mosquitoes could spread to new areas."

With many variables affecting the spread of malaria, Gomero decided to focus on an interesting anomaly. People who carry one gene with the sickle cell anemia trait, but do not have the illness, are highly resistant to malaria. If they do become ill, it's with a very mild case. "By incorporating that factor, we get a better picture of trends," she points out. "My mathematical models show that a sub-population of people with the sickle cell trait diffuses the level of infection in the entire population."

The spread of malaria occurs when humans and mosquitoes pass the infection back and forth. With fewer infected people, there are fewer infected mosquitoes to make additional people ill. Researchers have long known that the best hope for controlling illnesses like malaria is to develop a vaccine to make people resistant to infection.

As a participant in an interdisciplinary Marymount Epidemiology Research Project, Gomero worked under the guidance of Dr. Elsa Schaefer, chair of the University's Department of Mathematics, and Dr. Todd Rimkus, chair of the Department of Biological and Physical Sciences. The team included seniors Janelle Scott, a Biology major who worked on Mad Cow disease, and Roxana Leontie, a Computer Science major who supported Scott's and Gomero's research. "We helped each other, meeting weekly to share ideas," Gomero explains. Dr. Rimkus adds, "We all wrapped our thoughts around the project, and we broke it down from both biological and mathematical perspectives."

Excited about the collaboration across disciplines, Dr. Schaefer points out, "Boloye received recognition at a biology convention using a mathematical model. The growing field of computational biology is interdisciplinary, bringing new insights and research methods that are yielding results." Marymount's Epidemiology Research Project received funding from the Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research's MRO-W (Multidisciplinary Research Opportunities for Women) program.

This summer, Boloye Gomero is broadening her research to investigate how known malaria control efforts (use of bed netting, mosquito-killing efforts, and preventive medications) can best be combined in a cost-effective manner.

Gomero, who is in Marymount's Honors Program, will graduate summa cum laude in August with a B.S. in Biology and Math. She then plans to work at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, before beginning an M.D./Ph.D. program. Her fields of interest include bioinformatics, computational biology, and genetics.