Michael Robert, Ph.D.
Dr. Robert’s current research is focused on studying how climate and human movement contribute to the emergence and spread of mosquito-borne pathogens such as dengue, Zika and chikungunya.
Michael Robert, Ph.D., is a mathematical biologist who studies the emergence, spread, and control of infectious diseases using mathematical modeling. Before joining VCU, Robert was an assistant professor of applied mathematics and data science at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.
Robert’s current research is focused on studying how climate and human movement contribute to the emergence and spread of mosquito-borne pathogens such as dengue, Zika and chikungunya. In 2018, Robert was awarded a fellowship from the United States Embassy in Argentina and the Fulbright Foundation to travel to Córdoba Argentina to study the emergence of dengue and Zika with colleagues at the Institute of Biological and Technological Investigations at the National University of Córdoba. His other research interests include ecology and evolution of infectious diseases and genetic and biological mosquito population control strategies.
Robert is originally from Pearl, Mississippi. He earned his B.S. in mathematics in 2008 from Mississippi State University and his Ph.D. in Biomathematics from North Carolina State University in 2013. Between 2013 and 2017 he was a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Biology and Department of Mathematics and Statistics at University of New Mexico.
Q&A with Dr. Robert
Where did you grow up? Can you tell us a little about your educational journey?
I grew up in Pearl, Mississippi, a suburb of Jackson with about 20,000-25,000 people.
I attended Mississippi State University where I first intended to major in pre-veterinary science and go on to vet school. I changed my mind during my first year and ultimately studied mathematics. I also took a number of biology courses and minored in Spanish. I really loved both mathematics and biology, but I was not sure how I was going to use them in a career until my junior year of college when I discovered mathematical biology at an undergraduate workshop. I received my B.S. in mathematics in 2008.
I went to North Carolina State University and received a Ph.D. in biomathematics in 2013. There I studied mathematical models of novel strategies for controlling disease vectoring mosquitoes. After receiving my Ph.D., I moved to University of New Mexico where I was a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Biology and Department of Mathematics and Statistics for almost four years. There I worked on studying mathematical models of infectious disease emergence with a focus on mosquito-borne diseases.
In 2017, I began working as an assistant professor of applied mathematics in the Department of Mathematics, Physics and Statistics at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, which is a small health sciences-focused private university. While there, I helped create one of the first undergraduate programs in data science in the country.
When did you first fall in love with your field of study? What made you decide to work in academia?
As an undergraduate student, I really loved biological sciences, but I also enjoyed my math classes, and people around me often told me that I had a talent for math. (While I felt like this may have been true in my first two years, I definitely did not feel it was true as I started taking higher level math courses!) I did not know how I was going to combine my love of these two fields until the spring of 2007 when I attended an undergraduate workshop in mathematical modeling at the Statistical and Applied Mathematical Sciences Institute in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. There, two speakers gave talks and demonstrations of how models are used in ecology and infectious diseases, and I knew almost immediately that this was exactly what I wanted to do. From there, I started getting involved in undergraduate research at Mississippi State and through a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at Penn State Erie. I really fell in love with mathematical biology because it was an exciting new (to me, at least) way to investigate problems in biology. It combined my love of math, biology and computational sciences in a way that I never expected to find.
While I was discovering mathematical biology, I was also working in an instructional technology computer lab at Mississippi State. My job there was to assist people with computer software for graphic design, web development, audio-video creation and other software like Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Suite. This job gave me my first real experience in teaching. I found a new excitement in helping people understand how they could use the software to complete their projects. I also had the opportunity to work with some students over the course of months or even years. Watching those students progress in their skills and confidence gave me great joy, and I really started to think more about including teaching as part of my career, which pointed me in the direction of academia.
Academia allows me the best of both worlds. I have the joy of teaching, meeting new students and watching students grow over the course of a semester. I have the ability to engage in research. And, perhaps my favorite part of academia, I have the opportunity to bring the two together by mentoring students in research projects or integrating topics from my research into my courses which I hope shows students how even early math courses are useful for understanding things like infectious diseases, which is particularly relevant in 2020.
Can you explain the focus of your research?
My research uses mathematical models to study the emergence, spread and control of infectious diseases. I have primarily studied mosquito-borne viruses such as dengue and Zika, but I have recently been studying diseases caused by directly transmitted pathogens such as COVID-19. As COVID-19 has made more apparent, mathematical and statistical models are used to understand how diseases spread in populations—where they may go, how many people will be infected, how control measures might work, etc.
My work focuses a bit more on studying how and why diseases spread and why they start showing up in new populations. There are a lot of things that cause infectious diseases to spread and emerge in new populations like urbanization, changing climate patterns, increases in human travel and increases in human encroachment on wildlife populations. My work looks at the data that is available and tries to better understand how these things can contribute to infectious disease spread. We can use sets of mathematical equations and computational approaches to simulate infectious disease transmission and outbreaks and predict how changes in things like climate or human behavior can impact disease transmission.
Another aspect of what I do is studying how control measures might affect disease transmission. Controlling mosquito-borne diseases relies on controlling mosquito populations. We can use models to study how control measures like insecticide spraying will affect mosquito populations and the diseases they transmit. We can also hypothesize new control mechanisms like how releases of genetically sterilized mosquitoes might affect wild mosquito populations. I have worked with developing new genetic and biological control strategies that aim to decrease mosquito populations or replace mosquito populations with genetically-modified populations that cannot transmit pathogens.
Much of my current work is with groups in Cordoba, Argentina where dengue has been emerging over the last decade and Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, where dengue has been established for decades but has become more severe in recent years.
What attracted you to VCU? What are you most excited about in regards to VCU and Richmond?
For the past few years, I have been attending a conference at VCU called Biology and Medicine through Mathematics (BAMM!). At this meeting, I have met many of the faculty who will become my new colleagues and had the opportunity to explore the VCU campus and Richmond. I really loved the intellectual environment at VCU. The faculty with whom I interacted are all very talented but down to earth, very focused on their research but also on their students. From my first BAMM! meeting, I hoped that I could be a part of an environment like that ultimately, and I feel very fortunate to have been chosen for this position.
I also really loved exploring Richmond. The city has a very long and interesting history, and it seems to have experienced a bit of a rebirth in the last two decades. I am excited to be a part of the city as it continues to grow and change. I really enjoy seeing the older architecture of the city and walking around along the James River, and the city's location between the mountains and the ocean is ideal. For me, I think Richmond is the perfect size: large enough to have great amenities, but small enough to easily get around and do things without being overwhelmed.
Can you talk a little about your teaching philosophy? What do you most like about teaching?
I try to be as interactive with my students as possible. Mathematics is all about practice, so I stress that in my courses, and I try to minimize the time I spend lecturing. My in-class time is focused on helping students practice problems and helping them identify and overcome the issues they are having. I also think it's really important for students to see and experience applications of what they are learning, so as we learn new techniques, I connect them to important real-world applications. I try to incorporate data and examples from my own research into first-year courses, and I try to make connections between what we are learning and ongoing events (primarily climate change and infectious disease spread these days) so that the utility of the coursework is clearer.
Teaching for me is about sharing knowledge about something I truly love—mathematics, research and the applications of mathematics. I recognize that many students will never feel exactly the same about these subjects as I do, but enjoy sharing that passion with students and watching students get excited about new material or applications of the material is one of the things I love most about teaching. Math creates a lot of anxiety in people, and one of my goals as a professor is to alleviate that anxiety. Math doesn't need to be scary or feel like something that is super impossible. Everyone can do it, it just takes different people different amount of time to become comfortable with concepts. Watching students lose their fear of math and feel more confident in their skills is very exciting for me as a teacher.
Can you tell us either a quirky fact about yourself or some of your hobbies?
I love biking, hiking, traveling, reading, gardening, playing video games and camping. I really love yoga for both the spiritual and physical exercise, and I am going to do a yoga teacher training one day as soon as I find the right school and the time to do it. I love baking and cooking totally from scratch, and I spend quite a bit of time exploring different flavor combinations in my cooking and baking.
I love animals, and I have a six-year-old Chuggle (chihuahua, pug, beagle mix) named Kirby. He and I and my partner spend a lot of time together hiking, walking and playing outside.