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College of Arts and Sciences

Cornell undergraduate and siblings contribute brain power to fight COVID-19

By: Kate Blackwood
A&S Communications
April 2, 2020

Cornell student Yao Yu Yeo ’21 and his two siblings are doing their part to stop the spread of COVID-19 not just by sheltering in place but also by using this time to research the spread of the disease.

“The trio swiftly produced a well-thought-out computational model for estimating the progression of COVID-19 cases on the U.S. West and East Coasts. They’ve written up their work and will be submitting it for publication,” said Bruce Ganem, the Franz and Elisabeth Roessler Professor of chemistry and chemical biology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“The ongoing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic is of global concern,” the siblings wrote in their paper, “A Computational Model for Estimating the Progression of COVID-19 Cases in the US West and East Coasts.”

In the paper, they construct a mathematical model to make a quasi-worst-case scenario prediction of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S.

Ganem and Yeo met in fall 2019 in Ganem’s course, “Organic Chemistry for the Life Sciences.”

A biological sciences major who’s been interested in viruses since the day he arrived at Cornell, Yeo regularly attended Ganem’s office hours to learn about the professor’s journey in academia.

By early February, those career chats turned into a discussion about the current pandemic. Ganem inspired Yeo to do something about the looming COVID-19 crisis.

“The main factor that appealed to me was how some countries have managed to contain COVID-19 efficiently, while others previously thought to have been well-prepared for outbreaks have witnessed an unexpected number of cases,” Yeo said. “This led to the question: What about the U.S.?”

Yeo started a computational model for the spread of COVID-19 – and then, as he wrote in a March email, the world changed.

When classes ended abruptly on March 13 and students were sent home, he remained in Ithaca and started to work together—albeit remotely—with his two siblings, who are both Ph.D. candidates. Yao Rui Yeo, his older brother, is a fourth year Ph.D. student in mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania, and Wan Jin Yeo, his younger sister, is a second year Ph.D. student in physics at the University of Washington.

“We worked together through video and phone calls and adjusted sleep schedules,” said Yeo.

Yeo worked on the biological aspects of the project, then his siblings translated the biology into mathematics. Once the biology and the math came together, his siblings constructed a simulation while Yeo maintained the biological context, relating it to previous outbreaks and pandemics.

Ganem advised the process remotely from Ithaca, joined by Jack Muckstadt, the Acheson/Laibe Professor of Engineering, who has done past work with the Centers for Disease Control. The two professors and three student researchers used group emails to share ideas, and on a few occasions Ganem and Muckstadt spoke by phone about how to best mentor the team.

Ganem, Muckstadt, and other colleagues were impressed with the first draft, and Ganem worked with the students to shape the manuscript for publication.

“Many computational models are being produced right now,” Ganem said. “While none can accurately yet predict the course of the pandemic, it’s my hope that our paper will make the nation more aware of the scope and nature of the disease.”

Yeo hopes the paper will help mathematical modelers trying to project COVID-19 or other future outbreaks. “My biggest takeaway during the process is gaining a newfound level of appreciation for mathematical modelling,” he said. “It is such a challenging yet necessary task.”