Senior industrial engineering major Rebecca Castonguay, a Commonwealth College honors student, has been selected among six undergraduates from across the campus to receive the spring UMass Amherst Rising Researcher Award (Six Undergraduates Named Spring 2019 Rising Researchers). The Rising Researcher program celebrates undergraduate students who excel in research, scholarship, or creative activity. Learn more about the Rising Researchers here.
All six Rising Researchers were honored and presented with plaques on Wednesday, April 24, at the chancellor’s residence.
According to Castonguay’s profile on the UMass Research Next website, she knew little about mathematical modeling for disease when she signed on to Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Professor Hari Balasubramanian’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) team in the summer of 2018. But Castonguay was recruited by Balasubramanian after he noticed her high academic performance and strong mathematical and programming skills.
“Rebecca is the best industrial engineering undergraduate student I have taught in my 10 years at UMass Amherst,” said Balasubramanian on the Research Next site.
As part of her summer research, and now her honors thesis, Castonguay developed new models to understand the mathematical structures of networks of contacts between people during infectious disease epidemics.
“Rebecca developed a new neural network model for estimating degree correlations and is in the process of using that to develop more accurate contact generation algorithms, which are key to improving accuracy of epidemic predictions,” said Castonguay’s honors thesis advisor, MIE Professor Chaitra Gopalappa, to Research Next.
Gopalappa added that “This new method has the potential for broad impact for surveillance and control of emerging infectious diseases such as Ebola, SARS, and MERS. Results on test cases are promising.”
As Castonguay told Research Next, “I am fascinated with the mathematical models behind systems and how we can manipulate and create these models to make decisions that will help improve the system as a whole. My ultimate goal is to have a positive impact on those around me and, after this summer of research, I firmly believe that engineering will help me to achieve this goal.” (May 2019)