Katharina Ravichandran, a sophomore at Albemarle High School, wanted to find out how to protect vulnerable people from a disease such as measles when she started coding simulations in November.
Five months later, her first-place project in mathematical sciences won her a Grand Award at the 39th annual Virginia Piedmont Regional Science Fair, and her simulations have become more relevant as a different disease — COVID-19 — spreads across the globe.
“It’s funny because now a lot of the models that we see out there, they seem very familiar to what I’ve been doing,” Ravichandran said. “While I focused on measles on my project, my model can be translated to COVID-19. While it’s less a question about vaccinations, a lot of different hygiene measures can be tested and compared through my model.”
Ravichandran focused her project on measles after hearing about a 2019 outbreak in Brooklyn, New York. She wanted to figure out how many people needed to be vaccinated to protect those who are immunocompromised. “Herd immunity” is a population’s resistance to the spread of an infectious disease due to a sufficiently high proportion of people who are vaccinated or immune.
“I really just wanted to explore the topic, and just see whether I could start modeling things that would work to make the world a better place,” Ravichandran said of her project.
For the project, Ravichandran used an online program to simulate a computational model. She used agent-based modeling, which allowed her to factor in the component of variability.
“Which means I could translate it into something where we don’t know how it’s going to turn out, such as a novel virus like COVID-19 where nobody knows how that’s going to play out,” Ravichandran said.
She used four agents in her simulations — healthy but unvaccinated; the infected; the immune or vaccinated; and immunocompromised — and ran more than 500 simulations.
“I tried to see how many of the immune people do we need to ensure that we’re not inflecting the immunocompromised,” Ravichandran said. “… I could see that at 93% [of immune people], we see no cases where the immunocompromised gets infected.”
With in-person school canceled for the rest of the academic year, she’s been using publicly available data related to the pandemic and plugging it into her model to see how effective measures such as quarantine are.
“I knew there’s real-world implications in the fact that this can be translated to novel diseases, but I didn’t think it would be so relevant as now,” Ravichandran said. “… I hope people take away the importance of maintaining these different hygiene measures and protecting those who aren’t lucky enough to protect themselves.”
She’s also working to translate the model to non-epidemiological uses, such as ranking social media’s influence in the 2020 presidential election.
When not coding or doing school work, Ravichandran has been spending her free time outside with her dog, Maya, helping to organize a pen pal program for area nursing homes, playing instruments and horseback riding.
With schools closed, she misses her friends, but they are texting, FaceTiming and Zooming. Online classes officially started in Albemarle two weeks ago.
“It’s definitely an adjustment from normal life, obviously normal school,” Ravichandran said. “I think that the school did a good job. It’s a difficult situation. I thought they did a good job and all the teachers have created assignments, which works nicely.”
Overall, Ravichandran said her science project was a satisfying experience.
“The numbers I got were very similar to what the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] has, even though I took my different approach, which was further validation that what I did was accurate,” she said. “The idea that now it can be translated to important, relevant stuff was really rewarding for me.”