LTU professor gets grant to analyze disease outbreaks through wastewater

SOUTHFIELD–Between the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines in preventing serious illness or death, and the rise of home testing, it’s become difficult to determine the true number of COVID-19 cases in any community.

But a Lawrence Technological University professor has received a federal grant to determine the number of cases in a community accurately by a measure that can’t be fudged–the amount of coronavirus in wastewater.

Bruce Pell, assistant professor of mathematics in the LTU College of Arts and Sciences, received the two-year, $249,313 grant from the National Science Foundation.

“We’ll be using mathematical models to understand the spread of diseases, specifically COVID-19,” Pell said. “When people get infected with a disease like COVID, virus gets excreted into the sewer system. We know how much the average person will excrete, and we know the size of the population using the sewer system. Therefore, we can utilize mathematical models to better estimate the number of people who may be infected.”

The grant includes funding for four undergraduate research assistants over the two-year study, as well as money for travel to academic conferences. Working with Pell in the research will be Matthew Johnston, assistant professor of mathematics. Also funded by the grant will be work by Aleksandra Kuzmanov, assistant professor of chemistry and biology, who will help Pell design a mathematical biology course at LTU.

Pell said using mathematical models to get a truer picture of the actual extent of future coronavirus variants and other possible disease outbreaks will allow policymakers to make better decisions. “This project aims to provide decisionmakers with reliable forecasts, empowering effective public health interventions in combating and addressing future infectious disease outbreaks and monitoring current ones,” Pell said. “It will also help LTU estabilish a sustainable and interdisciplinary research program in mathematical biology.”

Pell earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Oakland University, and a PhD in applied mathematics from Arizona State University in 2016. He arrived at LTU in 2019 after a stint as a visiting professor at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. At LTU, he teaches classes in linear algebra, differential equations, and computational epidemiology.

Lawrence Technological University,, is one of only 13 private, technological, comprehensive doctoral universities in the United States. Located in Southfield, Mich., LTU was founded in 1932, and offers more than 100 programs through its Colleges of Architecture and Design, Arts and Sciences, Business and Information Technology, and Engineering. PayScale lists Lawrence Tech among the nation’s top 11 percent of universities for alumni salaries. Forbes and The Wall Street Journal rank LTU among the nation’s top 10 percent. U.S. News and World Report lists it in the top tier of best in the Midwest colleges. Students benefit from small class sizes and a real-world, hands-on, “theory and practice” education with an emphasis on leadership. Activities on Lawrence Tech’s 107-acre campus include more than 60 student organizations and NAIA varsity sports.


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