This is a part of a series of Q&As with mathematicians and computer scientists participating at the 1st Heidelberg Laureate Forum, September 22-27, 2013. More than 40 Laureates (Abel Prize, Fields Medal, Nevanlinna Prize, Turing Award) will attend the forum together with 200 young researchers. For a full week Heidelberg in Germany will be the hot spot of mathematics and computer science. Six of the young scientists told us about their current research and their expectations before the meeting.

Meet Calistus N. Ngonghala in this short Q&A series with 6 out of 200 young researchers.


Calistus N. Ngonghala



Where are you based?

Knoxville, Tennessee, USA but I will be moving to Boston, Massachusetts, USA on September 30, 2013.

Current position?

I am finishing a two-year Postdoctoral Fellowship at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) and I will be starting another Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, Harvard University from October 7, 2013.

What is the focus of your research?

Mathematical modeling is essential in understanding and explaining real world phenomena including biological, epidemiological and economic processes. My focus is on developing and using mathematical models to investigate two fundamental aspects:

The role of mosquito demography on the transmission of malaria and other vector-borne diseases and feedbacks between income and diseases, which may lead to vicious cycles in which disease and poverty reinforce each other (disease-driven poverty traps).

Malaria is caused by micro-parasitic organisms of the genus Plasmodium and transmitted from one human being to the other by female Anopheles mosquitoes. It constitutes a major health and economic problem to many parts of the world. My research will assist in explaining observed patterns in malaria prevalence and why it has been difficult to eradicate malaria. My research firstly aims at identifying useful information for designing and implementing effective and optimal control measures for malaria and other vector-borne diseases.

When a community falls below a certain level of prosperity, it can lose the ability to generate the economic momentum necessary to rise above that level again, thus creating what is referred to as a "poverty trap". My focus is on disease-driven poverty traps. I am interested in building a unifying framework for the ecology of health and economic growth. This framework will be used to explore both individual and population level interactions between income and disease and to demonstrate that disease-driven poverty traps can persist, even in populations that have high socio-economic status and are relatively healthy, albeit to a lesser degree. Also, this framework will be used to examine how various combinations of health and economic interventions can alleviate vicious cycles of poverty and disease. This research could lead to information that will assist policy-makers in developing and implementing better health care and economic development strategies, especially strategies that can enable individuals and populations to escape from traps of disease and poverty.

I am also interested in an unusual form of multistability (extreme multistability), which arises from a new class of dynamical systems obtained by coupling biological, chemical and physical systems in a special way.

Why did you become a mathematician?

My greatest passion since childhood has been problem solving. The easiest way to fulfil this dream was to become a mathematician. Mathematics is a major tool, which can be applied to acquire important insights into exciting real world concepts and questions. Growing up in Cameroon, Africa, I witnessed first-hand the devastation poverty and diseases like malaria and HIV/AIDS can bring to a community. This experience inspired my research in developing mathematical models to help fight malaria and other pandemics and in investigating how health interventions can break the vicious cycles of poverty and disease. Nobody can be more motivated or inclined to this fight than somebody who has a full understanding of the processes and systems involved, and who has felt the impact personally or is connected to people who are currently facing the impact. As an applied mathematician, I believe that an understanding of the biology and economics of the systems I model is useful. Hence, I actively pursue collaborations that integrate theory with empirical data with researchers in the biological and social sciences.

Anything like a favorite project?

I only get involved in a project if I like the project. Therefore, I don't really think I can classify any of my projects are favorite or non-favorite.

Why did you apply for the HLF13?

The Heidelberg Laureate Forum will offer me the unique and much needed opportunity to

  1. meet and discuss my research and career plans with great mathematicians and computer scientists;
  2. assess the impact of my research within the mathematics and scientific community;
  3. establish new collaborations with experienced and other young mathematicians and computer scientists.

Do you have any Laureates on your list, you would love to talk to?

Yes, but I don't have a final list at this time since I am still reading about the Laureates and their work.


This blog post originates from the official blog of the 1st Heidelberg Laureate Forum (HLF) which takes place September 22 - 27, 2013 in Heidelberg, Germany. 40 Abel, Fields, and Turing Laureates will gather to meet a select group of 200 young researchers. Beatrice Lugger is a member of the HLF blog team. Please find all her postings on the HLF blog.