The scenario: the world's medical community lacks a plan to administer a newly developed vaccine that could stop Ebola and cure patients not yet in the disease's advanced stages.
The challenge: develop a mathematical model to effectively produce and distribute the vaccine quickly and safely, as well as demonstrate its efficacy -- in just 96 hours.
The problem solvers: Franklin & Marshall College senior math major Yitong (Pepper) Huang, sophomore math major Meiyao Li and senior math and economics major Yibin Liu.
The trio was one of three teams from F&M to compete in the 2015 Mathematical Contest in Modeling, held on college campuses around the world Feb. 5 through Feb. 9. The competition, sponsored by the Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications, marked its 30th year in 2015.
The teams' mentor was Assistant Professor of Mathematics Christina Weaver, who participated in the contest all four years she was an undergraduate at Mount St. Mary's University.
"It helped them realize that what students do in the classroom is interesting, but it can be disconnected from what you do in your job as a mathematician -- trying to solve problems," she said.
Weaver believes the contest exponentially enhanced her own academic experience, and the nine F&M students who participated this year now agree with that assessment.
"It gave us a chance to solve a real-world problem," Meiyao said.
Weaver's students had to choose to model one of two problems: eradicating Ebola or locating a missing plane. Two of the three teams chose the Ebola challenge, while the third, comprising senior math and French major Emily Rayfield, senior math and computer science major Bryan Andrews and junior computer science major Amy Reyes, chose the lost-plane assignment.
In the latter setting, contestants were required to build a generic mathematical model that could help searchers develop a plan to locate a plane feared lost over the open ocean. The model had to recognize different types of planes as well as the many types of planes used to conduct such a search.
Identifying and accounting for so many variables was demanding, Andrews said.
"There's a probability that you searched a square and didn't find the plane," he said, recounting their design of a probability grid that searchers could follow. "Then there's the probability that you missed it in the square you searched."
The teams set up in three classrooms in Stager Hall, where they worked from the moment the contest began at 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 5 -- when they were presented with the two modeling options -- to 8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 9, the deadline for submitting their work. Their papers ranged from 10 to 20 pages.
"We felt sleepy, but we felt pretty good about our work when we submitted it three minutes before the deadline," said Ilia Kevlishvili, a junior math and chemistry major who teamed with senior math and computer science major Derek Pawlush and senior math and economics major Gülce Tuncer to untangle the Ebola problem.
They had to build a model that addressed the spread of the virus, the quantity of vaccine needed, the potential delivery systems and locations, and the speed of vaccine production. They also had to consider critical factors that could improve efforts to eradicate the virus.
Contest results will be published at the end of April. Whatever the outcome, the students said they appreciated the opportunity to compete, collaborate and use their knowledge to problem-solve.
"What got me interested in math in the first place was how I could apply it to different fields," Rayfield said. "This experience showed me one of the ways I could do that."