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Professor Holly Gaff.

Professor Holly Gaff of the Old Dominion University (ODU) in Norfolk, Virginia, in the United States is spending seven months at UKZN’s School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science (SMSCS).

Gaff has forged a close working relationship with scientists in the SMSCS as well as the School of Life Sciences over the past three years through her specialist work in ticks and tick-borne diseases. She was made an honorary Associate Professor in the SMSCS in 2013.

Gaff, whose interests in the disciplines of Mathematics and Biology led her to study for her PhD, focuses her research on exploring the ecology of infectious diseases with a specific focus on ticks and tick-borne diseases.

She utilises mathematical modelling to explore the dynamics of these diseases in the laboratory as well as collecting data to support these models through an active tick surveillance project in Virginia. Her focus on tick-borne diseases was established during her PhD when she connected with researchers in entomology who were trying to control an outbreak of a tick-borne disease. This led her to begin with modelling the data they supplied, before expanding her research in her post at ODU and collecting the data herself, moving further into the realm of biology with the surveillance project.

Gaff enjoys the interaction between mathematics and biology which has motivated the scientist in work which has won her a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the USA. Tick-borne diseases pose an increasing threat to health worldwide.

Gaff’s unique focus led her to begin work with researchers at UKZN in 2012, when she helped to organise the Quantitative Landscape Ecology and Environmental Sustainability project sponsored by DIMACS and MBI. In 2013, Gaff assisted in the organisation of the UKZN Siyacabanga Workshop on Ticks and Tick-Borne Diseases, leading her to develop active collaborations with UKZN staff in both the School of Life Sciences and the SMSCS.

In 2014, Gaff was awarded a sabbatical by ODU and with the help of UKZN’s Professor Kesh Govinder secured funding to spend seven months at UKZN.

Discussing why she chose UKZN, Gaff explained: ‘After working with professors from both Life Sciences and Mathematics, I really wanted an opportunity to spend more time working directly with these excellent scientists. As I was coming up for sabbatical at ODU, the timing was perfect for a trip here to truly solidify these collaborations, establish concrete research projects and help build the mathematical biology community here at UKZN.’

Gaff explained the important linkages in the work she is doing and UKZN’s focus in a similar area, namely the use of mathematical models and surveillance techniques to explore systems of ticks that are parallel with the systems she studies in the USA.  She feels the partnership has potential for both studies to progress more efficiently alongside one another.

‘The ability to compare and contrast the dynamics of these systems is very exciting and helps with the generalisability of both of our systems,’ she added.

UKZN’s work in the field of mathematical modelling and biostatistics for tick-borne diseases has been ongoing for a few years and was initiated because of the dearth of research in the field.

Treatment and prevention is currently a significant challenge because of the numerous tick species, types of diseases and routes of transmission. UKZN and international researchers believe the challenges can be combatted with mathematical modelling and field study.

The collaborative efforts of Gaff and UKZN are part of the process of nurturing innovative thinking to meet the threats these diseases pose to human and animal health.

“I hope to have the ability to build a community between ODU and UKZN that will allow for exchange of students between the two universities. I have had the opportunity to bring a couple of my postgraduate students with me to UKZN, and I would like to provide the same opportunities for UKZN students to visit and study and do research at ODU.’

Gaff  had received a warm welcome from everyone she had met at UKZN and was enjoying her stay. ‘I am glad to have more than a brief visit here so I can get to know my collaborators better, which will help our future research. I also plan to get out and enjoy the country through field collections of ticks as well as trips for pleasure.’

Gaff is lecturing students doing an Honours course in Mathematical Biology in the first semester this year, after which her focus will shift to research.

‘I plan to go into the field to collect ticks with the Life Sciences collaborators as well as work on joint manuscripts for publication, and possibly working on grant proposals for funding future collaborative projects.’