2 instructors at Yukon University are using math to fight COVID-19

·3 min read
Sara McPhee-Knowles, left, and Lisa Kanary are both instructors at Yukon University. The pair say they've been able to collaborate with their students too on the learning opportunity. (Submitted by Yukon University - image credit)
Sara McPhee-Knowles, left, and Lisa Kanary are both instructors at Yukon University. The pair say they've been able to collaborate with their students too on the learning opportunity. (Submitted by Yukon University - image credit)

It was one year ago when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 as a pandemic.

Since then many researchers, scientists and health professionals have been busy learning as much as possible about the coronavirus.

Two instructors at Yukon University have also been busy using math in the fight against COVID-19.

Lisa Kanary, who has a PhD in applied mathematics, and Sara McPhee-Knowles, who has a PhD in public policy, have combined forces to work with the Yukon government and the Public Health Agency of Canada on COVID-modelling.

'A really neat opportunity'

"It's been really a neat opportunity to learn from some people across the country who are the leading experts in this stuff, as well as the folks here who are working on Yukon-specific questions," said McPhee-Knowles.

Their journey started while they were both at a case competition in Calgary one year ago when the pandemic hit. It was then that they became aware of their shared backgrounds and reached out to the Yukon government to find out how they could help.

Since then they have been meeting with government officials weekly, along with a few members of the COVID-19 response team. They've also been attending COVID-19 modelling meetings with the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Some of the things that Kanary has been looking at, for example, include risk assessments and how mobility data — picked up by smartphones, Facebook, Google, etc. — relates to case numbers.

"I'm just looking at finding patterns and relationships to sort of advise things in the future," said Kanary.

She said because Yukon has been fortunate not to have seen the same amount of COVID-19 case numbers that many provinces experience down south, she has been looking at mobility data from other locations in Canada to help prepare Yukon in case there is a spike in cases in the territory.

Providing COVID-response team with more information

The work that McPhee-Knowles does is a little different — she looks more at individual people and how they interact with each other. This can be used to look at various scenarios such as comparing different mask efficiency percentages.

She said when Yukon's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley makes decisions about the territorial public health orders, he is looking at a ton of data from his epidemiologists and experts across the country.

"What we're doing more is giving the folks that we're working with on the COVID response team just more information from these modelling tools that they can use to feed into those decision making processes," said McPhee-Knowles.

One of the advantages of coming from a smaller jurisdiction, said McPhee-Knowles, is that you can develop strong working relationships as you are often working in tight-knit teams.

They've also been able to collaborate with their students as well and bring them in on the learning opportunity.

"It's been a great opportunity to grow our students and their knowledge base about modelling and pandemics for the future. And we've already started looking at student projects," Kanary said.

"They've already accomplished a couple of projects within my course and they've been matched up with people in the community. And I think the interest is definitely there."