Sean Cavany: Statistically Studying the Spread

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A strong background in mathematics and statistics has allowed postdoctoral researcher Sean Cavany to address one of the most pressing issues of modern times: the spread of infectious disease. 

Cavany received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Imperial College in London, England. Before graduate school, Cavany was a high school mathematics teacher. He went on to obtain his doctorate at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in Infectious Disease Epidemiology.

While this appears to be a complete switch from his background in mathematics, his epidemiological research was an application of math. His primary research focus during this time was using mathematical and statistical approaches to understand and improve contact tracing for patients with tuberculosis. 

At Notre Dame, Cavany works in the lab of Alex Perkins, Eck Family Associate Professor, where he studies infectious disease epidemiology. This lab, however, is not a wet lab at all: Perkins’s work relies on statistical, computational, and mathematical approaches to understand disease spread. Techniques that Cavany has worked on in this lab include agent-based modeling, which uses a detailed computational model to simulate the actions of people and mosquitoes to understand how these affect the outcome of disease spread in a larger system. Along with others in the lab, he has used these models to optimize how insecticide could be best deployed in buildings to reduce the abundance of mosquitoes, the vectors for various infectious diseases. 

“The lab as a whole works on a broad range of diseases,” Cavany described. “And then obviously COVID-19 happened, and quite a few members of our lab made a switch to working on that.”

The first coronavirus project that Cavany undertook began in March of 2020. He and others in the lab used a mathematical model with data from COVID-19 deaths and information about international virus spread to estimate the true number of coronavirus cases in the United States. They estimated that there were an order of magnitude more infections than what was actually being reported.

Next, the lab team examined data from the wastewater on campus during the 2020-2021 school year to try to determine how much RNA of the virus that causes COVID-19 is spread into the wastewater system.. 

Because of his research into COVID-19, Cavany explored new questions about diseases he had previously studied. Using agent-based modeling, he estimated what effect the lockdowns of the coronavirus pandemic would have on the spread of dengue virus. Interestingly, he found that the lockdowns could have a small direct effect to increase the spread of dengue virus as more people being at home would lead to a more effective spread of the virus in households. 

His ultimate plan is to return to teaching, but this time combined with research as a professor and not as a high school teacher. He wants to stay in the broad field of mathematical applications and human health, but perhaps shift his focus to examining antibiotic resistance..  “There’s a lot of antibiotic resistance already, and it’s rising, so it could become a big problem in a few decades,” he said.

Cavany spoke highly of his time at College of Science. He said he has a strong relationship with his supervisor, and takes advantage of the professional development opportunities offered at Notre Dame. Cavany also described his positive impression upon meeting Santiago Schnell, the William K. Warren Family Foundation Dean of the College of Science. 

“He seemed like he really wanted to increase the number of things that are done for postdocs within the College of Science, which I think is a really good endeavor,” Cavany said. “He seems to really value postdocs.”