Caitlin Rivers, a doctoral student in the Genetics, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology program at Virginia Tech, has been awarded the Department of Defense’s Science Mathematics and Research for Transformation grant to continue her studies in computational epidemiology.

The grant provides recipients with full tuition and fees, a significant stipend, paid internships, mentoring, and assured job placement after graduation. Rivers will work for the Army Public Health Command after graduation.

"This grant has been vital in helping to jump start my career," said Rivers. "It’s given me access to other scientists and allowed me to continue in epidemiology research in emerging infectious disease."

Rivers is currently at work on a study about Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, also known as MERS, a deadly new virus which was first discovered in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Little is known about the virus, though its closest relative can be found in bats. While it’s known that the disease can be transmitted between humans through sneezing or coughing, camels are suspected to also be a source of the disease. 

Rivers has found that MERS has likely spilled over from animals into the human population numerous times, and she and other scientists are trying to understand how this will affect disease transmission in the future.

One of the ways Rivers and her colleagues attempt to predict how a virus will spread is through agent-based modeling. These models combine locations, people and activities to form a detailed picture of a synthetic society. The hope is that through the interaction of all the various systems, scientists will be able to understand how a disease moves through a population and therefore how best to stop it.

"Caitlin is at the forefront of studying emerging infectious diseases using new methods that take into account the crucial role of human and animal behavior," said Stephen Eubank, deputy director of the Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory at Virginia Tech. "It’s gratifying that the Department of Defense has recognized her accomplishments and potential with this highly competitive grant."

Rivers received her bachelor's degree from the University of New Hampshire.

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.