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Mathematics alum uses disease modeling to help keep OSU community safe

By Department of Mathematics

Peter Banswarth originally decided to pursue a master's in mathematics to follow a career in teaching students.

Peter Banwarth (M.S. ’12) is an epidemiologist and public health data scientist with the Benton County Health Department in Oregon. He has developed models to guide county health policies on testing, safety and health measures for employees and the public to minimize infections and deaths in Corvallis and nearby areas. To keep the public informed about COVID-19 models and public health initiatives, Banwarth has presented his work with Oregon health departments for audiences at OSU and the Corvallis City Council. Banwarth's modeling suggests that the restrictions Benton County implemented during the shutdown phase have been successful in reducing the spread of the virus. Prior to joining the mathematics graduate program with Professor Tom Dick, Banwarth received an undergraduate degree in economics and a master's degree in statistics from Stanford University.

The following content has been adapted from an interview conducted by the OSU Mathematics Department Media Committee. Responses have been adapted for length.

Why did you choose to study in the mathematics department at OSU?

As an undergraduate I studied economics and then had an opportunity to do a master's in statistics. When I decided to move back to Oregon, I was thinking about what I enjoy doing. One of those things is teaching, I really like teaching. There are a lot of opportunities to teach mathematics — a lot more opportunities to teach math than there are to teach economics. Being from Corvallis, I decided to start the math program at OSU with the plan to get a degree so that I could teach math.

What is one favorite OSU mathematics department memory?

I really enjoyed the first year of my master's program, diving into the core classes with my fellow students. Just working through the homework together up at the chalkboard, three or four of us talking about the problems and figuring them out. So that's one of my favorite memories — not necessarily a specific one but I definitely enjoyed the camaraderie.

A specific memory I enjoyed was a class with Elise Lockwood on teaching. I don't remember exact title, but it was about statistics and the teaching of probability and statistics. We each developed a little module project that we presented to the class, so I developed one based on an experiment I actually did when I was in eighth grade science, but added a statistics flair. I got to present that to the class, and then submitted it to a statistics website and actually got it published there. So that's one of my favorite memories.

"It was a good opportunity for me to take my skill set and use it to build more knowledge and really ground myself in the community that I wanted to live in."

What is it that you do?

A lot of what I do is really collaborative learning, I would say. I learn from the folks I work with, their side of things, and then I help them learn the mathematical and the data side of the work that they're doing.

I monitor more overall health measures for the county and work with our community partners to try to improve the health of our community members. My role is to provide the data to help them set mileposts and understand where we are, and then monitor any changes.

I have an opportunity to do a lot of different things in my job. I've worked on some pretty intensive programming projects, like developing EpiModel of disease. I work on presenting data to different groups in different ways, everything from a community group that has no background in public health or data analytics, to other Epis around the state. And I also get to work with a really great team of professionals who are focused on extending the benefits of living in Benton County to all our community members, and not just the ones who come in privileged.

What led you to your career and how did the mathematics department at OSU prepare you for it?

I was teaching as an adjunct lecturer at OSU with a baby on the way, and as much as I enjoyed it, I knew it wasn't incredibly stable. So when this position came along for the epidemiologist at the county, I decided, hey, that's an interesting job. I knew I would learn a lot about the public health side of things, and they were also pretty clear that they were looking for someone who is really comfortable both interpreting, but also explaining, data and statistics in a public health lens. It was a good opportunity for me to take my skill set and use it to build more knowledge and really ground myself in the community that I wanted to live in.

What are you currently working on?

For the past year I have been working with public health and the health department in the county on our COVID-19 response.

Currently, I monitor our daily trends in COVID-19 cases. I've developed and maintain a public dashboard so that our community can see what the pandemic looks like at a local level. Along with some other team members, I provide recommendation and advice to our local K-12 schools as they provide education to our students in this current climate. Earlier on, when there were more questions than answers about what the pandemic would look like, I developed modeling to help us plan for different contingencies based on how we might respond from a policy standpoint and how the disease might develop. I also partner with OSU, especially the College of Science and College of Public Health, on the TRACE-COVID-19 project for monitoring COVID-19 among the OSU community and how it affects and interacts with the larger Benton County community.

"OSU students are absolutely a part of our community."

The most common question I get as an epidemiologist is, “Well, are students part of Benton County? Do we count students in our population? Do we count them in our health statistics?" OSU students are absolutely a part of our community. The population of Benton County is 93,000 people, and that includes OSU students. We include them in our health statistics, and they are as much a part of our community as anybody else who lives, works, learns or plays in Benton County. Whether someone is visiting for a single meal or living their whole life here, they're all part of the public health community and we do our best to include them in our community wellbeing.

You were interviewed as part of OSU’s Daily Barometer series “19 COVID-19 Stories” back in May 2020. One year later, how has your work changed and how do you feel about the state of things now compared to then?

May 2020 was about the point where the initial spread of the disease seemed to slow a little bit — at least in Oregon and in Benton County — so there was a lot of uncertainty about the future. We didn't know much about the disease, didn't know specifically how it spread, how much of it was aerosol, droplet or surface. Medical treatments were not as refined, so individuals with a severe case were at higher risk of death. And at the same time, in Benton County we were seeing maybe two cases a week. So we did not actually have a lot to do from the standpoint of case investigation or actual disease control — we were trying to figure out how to prepare for what might or might not come down the road later. We did a lot of work on seeing how the disease might progress throughout the next full year, developing some models to see, for instance, what would happen if we maintain very high restrictions? We now have a much better sense of what to expect, given a certain level of cases and depending on response, whether the case rate will grow or shrink.

"That's where epidemiology has really expanded; understanding the determinants of health requires data and analytics backgrounds."

What might people be surprised to learn about your profession and what you do?

Epidemiology is a lot more than infectious or communicable disease. When people think about epidemiologists, they think about someone like Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is an epidemiologist, in addition to being a medical doctor and the head of infectious disease at US NIAID. But most epidemiologists actually work on non-communicable disease, for example, epidemiologists who spend their careers trying to figure out the reason for higher cancer rates in a certain population. And epidemiology has really begun to recognize how far back the determinants of health go — everything from income, to the zip code where a person was born to what racial or ethnic group they identify with. Epidemiology is really now trying to figure out how to incorporate all that different information to understand what changes a person's opportunity to live a healthy life and what can we do to create the conditions so that everyone can have that opportunity.

Like most other disciplines, public health has become more data oriented. That's where epidemiology has really expanded; understanding the determinants of health requires data and analytics backgrounds.

What do you do for fun or hobbies?

I really like mountain biking. I try to mountain bike every week in McDonald Forest. I also like gardening. I've got a vegetable garden started, and I also have blueberries and some fruit trees planted. And my kid, who's five, he really loves to be out in nature and to ride his bike. So a couple of times a week we either go riding our bikes, or — I just got a couple of kayaks, so now we've started exploring the waterways around Salem. As the weather gets better, we'll go for more hikes and go camping as well.

"A lot of mathematics feels very black and white, but mathematics takes place in society and society is very colorful."

What advice or “wise words” would you like to give people?

The biggest advice I would give would be, always look for opportunities to learn from the people around you. We all bring different backgrounds, different experiences, different views and different skill sets, and it's amazing what you can learn from someone when you enter with a sense of curiosity. Honor your worldview, but also really try to see things from someone else's perspective. A lot of mathematics feels very black and white, but mathematics takes place in society and society is very colorful. Just being open to the possibility and the opportunity to learn from other people, I think, is satisfying and very professionally advantageous.