High school senior among finalists in competition studying spread of H1N1

ARLINGTON -- Haley Shopp, a senior at Arlington's Grace Preparatory Academy, didn't have to look far to find an illness to study as part of the Young Epidemiology Scholars Competition, a nationwide contest co-sponsored by the College Board.

It was May 2009, and the H1N1 virus was on lots of people's minds. The Fort Worth school district had closed for a week, and some campuses in other districts had, too.

"When I was doing my project, it was a really big deal," she said recently.

That project -- in which she sought to find out what percentage of people needed to be vaccinated to significantly affect the spread of H1N1 -- recently won her a $15,000 scholarship and a place among the top scholars in the nation. She was one of 12 finalists in the contest, out of 639 entries.

To enter the competition, Shopp, 17, looked up information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about how the H1N1 virus spreads. She used the Mansfield school district's enrollment, about 31,000, as a model. Then, she plugged the CDC information, along with estimates of theoretical vaccination rates, into a mathematical disease modeling formula that her calculus teacher, Britnee Crawford, helped her figure out.

She found that the rate of vaccination didn't have to be very high -- around 40 percent -- to have a significant effect on the illness' spread.

"It was nice to know that if there was another outbreak, that we probably had enough people vaccinated that we would probably be OK," she said.

Shopp finished her paper in January. At the end of March, she learned that she was going to Washington, D.C., to present her paper -- a process she describes as "kind of terrifying." Some of the judges were from the CDC. Others were professors in public health.

Ian Rockett, a professor of epidemiology at West Virginia University, was part of the panel. He said Shopp seemed at ease explaining her work.

"I think she did a really nice job. She showed great imagination and initiative in a disease modeling project and she addressed what was a real world concern," he said. "She actually had a very practical aim, and that was to help schools become proactive instead of reactive."

Crawford said it was no surprise to her that Shopp, who also tutors other students in a math lab at the private school, did so well.

"She's a hard worker and was committed to it all the way through," Crawford said. "She knew what she was doing, and she was thorough."

The College Board and the philanthropic Robert Wood Johnson Foundation established the Young Epidemiology Scholars Competition in 2003 to encourage bright young people to enter the field of public health.

Shopp, who plans to major in math at Dallas Baptist University, said the project has shown her a lot about how math can help explain and predict infections.

As for combining math and public health into a career: "I'm thinking about it for sure," she said.

TRACI SHURLEY, 817-390-7641