FEB 03, 2023 6:00 AM PST

Biomathematics, Mosquitoes, and Diseases | Cole Butler, PhD Student at North Carolina State University | Grad Student Highlights

Cole giving a talk on the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in hospitals at the Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute. (Credit: Cole Butler)

Cole Butler is a 3rd-year PhD student in the Biomathematics Graduate Program at North Carolina State University (NC State) whose research focuses on using computational models to study the spread of diseases, which comes after earning his undergraduate degree in Mathematics at the University of Maine in 2020. Butler notes several factors were responsible for getting him interested in his field of study, with no one factor standing out.

“Growing up in Maine, I appreciated being in the outdoors,” says Butler. “Unfortunately, this also meant getting bit by mosquitoes. I’m not quite sure how it happened, but I eventually learned that mosquitoes are vectors of some pretty dangerous diseases. What a terrifying realization---the insect responsible for the itchy welts on my arms could transmit malaria! Of course, I had nothing to worry about all the way up in Maine, but it did kickstart my fascination with mosquitoes.”

While in grammar school, Butler says he would sit in the back of the classroom and read up on mosquitoes and their diseases on an iMac G3 computer. He eventually came upon the works of Richard Preston, particularly The Demon in the Freezer and The Hot Zone.

Butler also notes his affinity for math from an early age, saying he built a “deep appreciation” for mathematics from traversing between public and magnet schools, and even worked with one of his teachers on a variety of mathematical subjects ranging from differential equations to abstract algebra. Butler says it was at college that he met a department professor who used mathematical and computational models for studying the spread of disease, and Butler says he’s been hooked ever since.

I tried pursuing alternative paths but constantly found myself distracted by math or programming fun models on my laptop,” says Butler. “I eventually caved and committed myself full-time to the pursuit of mathematics and eventually biomathematics.”

Cole working at his desk. Much of his work involves the use of computational models to better understand how biological systems operate. (Credit: Cole Butler)

He says it was while conducting summer undergraduate research in Arizona which that he learned about his current program, saying NC State had begun a new initiative called the Genetics and Genomics (GG) Scholars Program where he could enroll as a Biomathematics PhD student while simultaneously conducting interdisciplinary research in an immersive life sciences program.

“Beyond the many opportunities at NC State, I am most grateful for my peers,” says Butler. “I am lucky to be surrounded by some exceptional graduate students, both in the Biomathematics Graduate Program and the GG Scholars, who continue to inspire me every day.”

As far as challenges facing graduate students in his field today, Butler stresses the importance of paying them a living wage, referring to it as “an often-talked-about but little-addressed matter at most universities”, which he says includes NC State.

“How can graduate students, the lifeblood of any healthy graduate program, succeed if they face such financial hardships?” Butler stresses. “Financial stresses detract from research and can incur a heavy toll on one’s mental health. The pandemic and recent inflation have brought these issues to the forefront at many universities. While there has been progress, I think that we are still far from solving the problem.”

As far as his aspirations after earning his PhD, Butler says he’s still currently unsure, saying he finds both teaching and research appealing but knows they’re not limited to strictly academia.

“I want to answer interesting questions that have a meaningful impact on communities affected by disease,” says Butler. “I especially want to focus my efforts on underserved and neglected regions.”

As always, keep doing science & keep looking up!

About the Author
Master's (MA/MS/Other)
Laurence Tognetti is a six-year USAF Veteran who earned both a BSc and MSc from the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. Laurence is extremely passionate about outer space and science communication, and is the author of “Outer Solar System Moons: Your Personal 3D Journey”.
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