World Class Faculty & Research / April 18, 2014

Flu or Something More Sinister? Using Computer Models to Find Out

Symptoms resulting from a bioterrorism attack could be alarmingly similar to those of the flu. A computer model developed by Sean Barnes, assistant professor of operations management, aims to identify one from the other by their very different transmission dynamics. 

Barnes built his original simulation model for his dissertation as a mathematics PhD student at the University of Maryland (2012) to help public health officials seeing the two scenarios play out and determine which they are dealing with. 

“The sooner we can tell the difference, the sooner we can deploy the right measures,” he says. 

Now Barnes is working with Bruce Golden, the France-Merrick Chair in Management Science, and another Maryland doctoral student to improve the model to incorporate additional aspects such as attacks in multiple locations, bioterrorism agents that spread between humans and information uncertainty. 

The Centers for Disease Control track a number of real-time health data points to look for red flags. Barnes says, ideally, this model could be included as a module in that tracking system. 

“We are trying to solve a problem that could happen — and our solution could potentially save lives.”

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