2016 Breakthrough Star Kasia Pawelek

Mathematics involves a lot of abstract thinking, but its potential can be quite solid. Kasia Pawelek’s research on the modeling of infectious diseases caused by influenza and West Nile viruses is a manifestation of that potential. 

Using the tools of mathematical biology, Pawelek is striving to provide a better understanding of the spread and control of infectious diseases. Her work knows no borders, including collaborations with researchers at the University of Georgia, the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Harbin Institute of Technology in China.

Pawelek’s research may be international in scope, but she doesn’t neglect her home state. In one project, she is working with Beaufort County to assess abatement strategies for West Nile virus. The collaboration has produced a smartphone app that was published on Google Play and iTunes and is currently being used by the Beaufort County Mosquito Control and the South Carolina Department of Health and Human Services to track West Nile virus activity and service requests in the county.

Her research, which has been supported by a number of funding agencies including the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, is published in leading peer-reviewed journals in the field but attracts popular interest as well. Work in an article published in PLoS One, for example, was featured in local newspapers and on local television and served to highlight the contributions that her undergraduate students are making to cutting-edge scientific research.

Pawelek’s efforts to get students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields reach beyond USC Beaufort’s borders. She co-founded a faculty outreach initiative that promotes college education and the STEM disciplines in local high schools and co-organized a SharkBytes event that brings middle and high school students onto campus to get a taste of what STEM fields can offer.

Undergraduates who join Pawelek’s laboratory have every opportunity to get ahead in research, with students earning Magellan funding from the Office of Undergraduate Research, winning top prizes at Carolina’s Discovery Day in Columbia and being published in peer-reviewed journals. She takes particular satisfaction in having the majority of her mentees being first-generation and under-represented college students.

“Her drive and talent in research in the area of mathematical biology is simply marvelous,” says Manuel Sanders, chair of mathematics and computational science. “She brings a phenomenal presence to the department and the university.”

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