Abba Gumel: Math With A Mission

Abba Gumel with graduate students: l-r, Oluwaseun Sharomi, Ashrafi Niger, Professor Abba Gumel, Chandra Podder and Dessalegan Melesse

updated 4 March 2010

Double congratulations to Abba Gumel, who has been elected to the African Academy of Sciences and the Nigerian Academy of Sciences

The African Academy of Sciences (AAS) is an Africa-wide scientific organisation, with a view to honouring internationally renowned African scientists and to encourage the development of the research and technology based throughout Africa.

The Nigerian Academy of Sciences is the body of foremost Nigerian scientists with membership now including experts in various fields of science, engineering and medicine.  It is a non-governmental organization with local and international collaborations including the Inter Academy Panel (IAP), an umbrella for over ninety science academies worldwide.

The Academy aims to provide unbiased expert advice to Government, private organizations and the public based on sound scientific evidence.  The vision of the Academy is an improved quality of life for the Nigerian society through the promotion and application of sound science and technology. 

In August, 2009, Gumel was also the winner of Dr. Lindsay E. Nicolle Award.



Winnipeg Free Press Article: 19 October 2009     

posted 19 October 2009
by Katie Chalmers-Brooks (First published in the October 8, 2009 issue of The Bulletin.)

Every minute, four more young people become infected with HIV.  Each day, over 5,000 people die of AIDS.  How do you tackle numbers this daunting?  With math, according to Abba Gumel.

The professor puts pen to paper to develop and test methematical models that track the spread of diseases like AIDS or H1N1 and determines the most effective plan of attack.  He figures out their pattern and tries to predict how many people will get sick, how many will end up in hospital and how many will die.  He can also show public health officials how to best control an outbreak by using methods like quarantine, vaccination and awareness campaigns.

Gumel's world revolves around scores of numbers but he says it's the individuals behind the figures that drive him.  He recalls touring a health centre in Botswana and looking into the eyes of a young man in his 20s only minutes away from dying of AIDS.  The patient could no longer talk, but his eyes spoke volumes.

"That was compelling.  That was absolutely compelling.  I looked at him and he was basically just bones, like nothing.  I think by the time we left, he had probably died," says Gumel.  "It's not just something abstract that mathematical modelers are doing.  It is a well-rounded science that affects the lives of millions of people around the globe."

His latest project has the potential to make a huge impact.  Gumel and his postdoctoral fellow Salisu M. Garba recently constructed a mathematical model (which is a system of equations) that if put into action, they way, would lead to the elimination of HIV in Nigeria in roughly 20 years.  About three million people in the West African country (population 150 million) are HIV positive.

A mathematical model is a representation of reality and, in the context of disease spread, is designed with input from sources like public health officials, clinicians, statisticians and pharmaceutical scientists. Gumel then plugs in different parameters and runs scenarios to determine which control strategy - vaccination, for example - would prevent the greatest number of new infections and deaths.

He says mathematics offers a cost effective scientific approach for studying disease transmission since it doesn't require expensive lab equipment and lengthy lab experiments. Mathematical modeling also helps resource-poor nations minimize the burden of diseases while using limited available resources.

Gumel's recent findings have caught the attention of some Nigeria public health officials who want to know more about his low-cost recipe of counseling, condom distribution and drug intervention. Helping to eliminate HIV in the most populous country in Africa may be a lofty goal, but it's also a personal mission for the researcher.

He holds Nigeria close to his heart; it's where he was born and raised, and where he first fell in love with math. At only three-years-old, he would tag along to class atop the shoulders of his uncle, who was a primary school teacher in Kano. One of nine siblings, Gumel recalls hunkering down at the back of the classroom and being enamored by the sight of numbers his uncle scribbled on the chalkboard for the older school children.

"Mathematics is the science of precision. It is everywhere. It's the foundation of the natural and engineering sciences," says Gumel, who is the director of the Institute of Industrial Mathematical Sciences at the University of Manitoba. "Mathematics is about studying the often complex relationships between objects and observing patterns. It's not just about adding and subtracting numbers."

Gumel has put his expertise to use to help combat diseases like tuberculosis and West Nile virus.  He and his colleagues successfully predicted the 2003 SARS outbreaks in Toronto could effectively be contained using quarantine and isolation.

A few years later, he and his collaborators evaluated Canada's 2006 preparedness plan for pandemic influenza and discovered it underestimated the projected burden and may have been inadequate to effectively control its spread. His accompanying paper recently received the prestigious Dr. Lindsay E. Nicolle Award from The Canadian Journal of Infectious Diseases and Medical Microbiology.

Now Gumel is part of a team that is working towards achieving the United Nation's goal of effectively controlling malaria globally by 2015. Every year, malaria kills more than 1 million people.

"Lots of people are dying, especially children. A child dies of malaria every 30 seconds. It's very deadly. It's terrible.  It's a big problem," says Gumel, who believes mathematical modeling can be part of the solution.