Web Exclusives: Diseases
Q&A: Michelle Lee, High School Epidemiologist
When high school student Michelle Lee noticed newspaper headlines in 2007 reporting that young American athletes were dying from infections of invasive skin bacteria, she was inspired to act.
Lee got involved with a research lab at the University of Pittsburgh that develops computer simulations as part of the Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study (MIDAS). The models help scientists and policymakers test ways to prevent infection. Lee modeled how the bacteria she read about, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA, spreads in populations.
She has investigated if it's possible to prevent MRSA from spreading among high school athletes. For this work, Lee, now 17, received a $50,000 scholarship at the 2011 Young Epidemiology Scholars national competition.
I asked her about her project, what it's like to work in a lab and how she finds time to fit scientific research into a busy student schedule.
How did MRSA catch your interest?
I've played varsity tennis and am a competitive rower. As an athlete, I was curious to find out about MRSA and why it was potentially so deadly. I knew that a MRSA infection was considered a "superbug" infection since it doesn't respond to common antibiotics like penicillin. When I saw the headlines that the infection had affected young healthy people in the community, I became increasingly concerned. At the same time, my school sent out letters to parents informing them that some athletes from my own school had contracted MRSA infections.
How did you get involved in scientific research?
In the summer of 2008, I approached a computer modeling expert, Dr. Bruce Lee (unrelated to me), who leads the Applied Modeling Project for the University of Pittsburgh MIDAS National Center of Excellence. I was fortunate and grateful that he invited me into the research group he leads. I worked to model MRSA's spread under the supervision of Dr. Lee and Dr. Rachel Bailey-Slayton, his doctoral student.
What did you do in the lab?
I learned to search, read and analyze medical literature; calculate probabilities and statistics; formulate a question in a way that could be answered; construct computer modeling; run simulations; and, finally, interpret the data.
What was the main question your project set out to answer?
I wanted to find out if routine skin testing for MRSA in high school athletes would be a cost effective policy.
How did you conduct the study?
I performed a medical literature search by reading over a hundred articles on my topic and interviewed local experts to obtain data like probabilities, cost and utilities. Then I developed a computer model that showed the possible outcomes involving high school athletes and MRSA. I put the data I collected from the literature search into the model. Finally, I used the model to perform simulations to generate and analyze results.
What did you conclude?
Routine testing becomes cost effective at a certain prevalence threshold of MRSA (when it's greater than about 10 percent of a population). More studies need to be done in the high school athlete population to better determine the true prevalence.
Are there useful tips young athletes can take away from your work?
They should know what MRSA is, how to detect the symptoms and what can be done to prevent it and its spread—washing hands, showering immediately after exercise, covering the open and exposed area on the skin, limiting exposure to infected people, washing uniforms in hot water after each use and not sharing personal hygiene items.
What did you like most about conducting research?
Asking a question and finding an answer that no one else knows!
Did anything surprise you?
What surprised and impressed me the most was the power of computer modeling and simulation. A computer model is a virtual world that creates life-like situations, generating many potential scenarios. My computer model could run simulations with over 20 million people. This was phenomenal to me!
What do you do outside of the lab?
I love to participate in music, sports and community service. I am a pianist and harpist, and I enjoy performing and competing. This October, I [performed] a piano solo for the seventh time at Carnegie Hall in New York as the winner of the World Piano Competition.
How do you balance all of your different interests and activities?
I'm still learning. I think time management and organization skills are very important. It helps that I enjoy all my activities!
Where do you see yourself 10 or 20 years in the future?
I would like to continue research in bioengineering and epidemiology. I would also like to get involved in cancer research. I want to help as many people as I can.