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Graduate Student Spotlight: Shelby Scott

Shelby Scott, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

In 2016, Louis Gross, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, presented to his Math Ecology students an article about the lack of gun violence research conducted in the United States.

He assigned his class to use mathematical modeling, a method of using equations to describe and predict phenomena in biology, to assess gun violence. When the project was over, one of his graduate students, Shelby Scott, decided to continue researching gun violence. She hasn’t stopped since.

“It was like there was a voice in my head telling me to pursue the topic,” said Scott. “Except the voice in my head was the media, my friends, and the government. It was the new stories of mass shootings every day—the stories of interpersonal violence and fatalities.”

Gun violence is a topic of great public concern, leading to 31,000 fatalities and 78,000 nonfatal injuries annually. Scott believes that the same mathematical models used for evaluating responses and developing preventive policies for infectious disease epidemics—including recent Zika and Ebola outbreaks—could be implemented to study gun violence.

“The Dickey Amendment, which was passed in 1996, removed CDC funding for gun violence research and consequently intimidated other groups into slowing their own progress on the topic,” Scott said.

A small number of mathematical models are used in gun violence research, such as those that measure the effects of legal gun availability on firearm-related homicide rates or the probability of another mass killing occurring after an initial event, but overall it is the second-least researched cause of death in America.

“Sepsis and gun violence have similar mortality rates in the United States, but there is $3 billion of research funding for sepsis while gun violence receives 0.7 percent of that amount,” Scott said. “There are obvious gaps that need to be filled and new collaborations that need to be formed.”

Although math wasn’t one of Scott’s strengths in elementary or high school, things started to click when she took a college-level disease modeling course that used differential equations to explore the dynamics of tuberculosis. She learned that you can use mathematical models to predict things like how fast an infectious disease will spread or how many people within a community need to be vaccinated to eradicate a disease. Formulas had a purpose and were useful in predicting what could happen in the future.

“I became an evidence-based fortune teller,” she said, “and I realized I loved research.”

Her path led her to Gross’s lab, where she gained a unique perspective into the research on gun violence.

Ecologists look for patterns in the natural world to explain interactions among organisms within their physical environment, while evolutionary biologists focus on the processes that produce diversity of life on earth.

Scott uses these different approaches to inform her research on gun violence. She analyzes elements that influence these crimes individually, within a community, and on a national scope and notes any recurring patterns. She then looks at how the culture, policies, and characteristics of crime have changed over time, resulting in a deeper understanding of the nation’s cultural timeline. In so doing, researchers can craft more effective solutions that address the complexities of the issue.

Scott is currently working with the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) and the Center for the Dynamics of Social Complexity (DySoC) to host a workshop on the mathematics of gun violence, bringing together researchers from diverse backgrounds. There she will demonstrate how mathematical modeling applies to gun violence. She believes these methods will eventually lead to applications in wildfire and disease prevention as well.

“Our hope for this workshop is that it results in new collaborations and novel efforts to enhance the quantitative aspects of the science of gun violence and that—in the long-term— it will inform evidence-based policy decisions,” she said. “Gun crime and gun violence do not exist in isolation, so research on these topics should not exist in disciplinary silos either.”

Scott hopes to leverage her interdisciplinary work to eventually start a consulting firm that will help researchers carry out data analytics and predictive modeling on a variety of projects.

The Mathematics of Gun Violence workshop will be held May 1–3, 2019. The application deadline is November 30.

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CONTACT:

Raphael Rosalin (865-974-2152, rrosalin@utk.edu)