Leanna Cates, 22

“As scientists, we work hard on a daily basis to deliver hard evidence to the public, and if our research can inform policy, then that’s the best thing we can do.”

In their own words

I am a member of the Interdisciplinary Applied Mathematics Group at UMKC working with Drs. Naveen Vaidya and Munsur Raman. We are currently collaborating with Dr. H.T. Banks, a well-known mathematical modeler at the North Carolina State University.

Our research on the Zika Virus was recently recognized by policymakers and other stakeholders in the state of Missouri. In my project, my colleagues and I evaluated the efficacy of available prevention programs and treatment for the Zika Virus. The Zika Virus is a vector-borne pathogen spread mostly by the Aedes species mosquito and is correlated with grave neurological defects, such as microcephaly or Guillain-Barré syndrome. There is currently an epidemic in South America and due to effects of climate change, the Zika Virus has been located in the United States with the majority of cases in the state of Florida and Texas. Because the Aedes species has migrated north, there are cases of the Zika Virus in the state of Missouri and is presently a public health emergency for our community.

Representative Keith Frederick of the 121st district is a physician and Chairman of the Health and Mental Policy Committee who has expressed interest in creating policy that would reduce standing water in rural areas. I am currently working with the Missouri Department of Health and Human Services to design a small-scale study that would demonstrate the effects on transmission and prevalence if standing water was reduced.

Why is this a big deal? Mathematical models rarely get the attention of policymakers. People just don’t understand scientific jargon and often don’t care. But because the Zika Virus is a rising epidemic in the states, people are starting to pay attention. They often ask an important question — “What can we do in the community to prevent our families from getting these diseases or at least reduce the risk?” As scientists, we work hard on a daily basis to deliver hard evidence to the public, and if our research can inform policy, then that’s the best thing we can do. Especially right now, in the land of “alternate facts.”


KC story

I’ve lived in Kansas City, MO for 4 years now. I came here to attend the University of Missouri-Kansas City. At this moment, Kansas City is rapidly growing into a scientific and technological hub. I appreciate my team at the Interdisciplinary Applied Mathematics Group at UMKC. Without them, I wouldn’t have realized my interest for disease modeling. Also, my Honors College professors – they fostered my leadership abilities and made me grow into the resilient scientist I am today.

A day in the life
Typical day as a student researcher → Meet with my mentor, Dr. Vaidya. Skype with collaborators. Incorporate advice into writing. Do this 100x until something promising comes out.

Typical day as an actual human/cyborg student → Wake up. Check emails. Apply to Graduate Programs. Rock climb. Get mediocre sleep.


In the field, I want to be known as someone who improved the landscape of implementing disease prevention programs; I want to continue building robust, data-driven models to inform policymakers of our most urgent needs.  As a person, I want to be known as a female trailblazer – a resilient woman who pushes pass adversity and does so with kindness, dignity, and wit.


I am a singer! Before I came to college, I applied to be a music major. I thought I wanted to be a scientist who studied music therapy treatments. That obviously changed when I realized I was fascinated with preventing diseases at a systemic level. I started taking courses in bioinformatics instead and became a programmer.

Programming and writing music are very similar in a way – you have these basic components that you systematically and creatively craft together, ultimately forming something complex, functional, and beautiful!


This advice is for everyone: although it is important to remain humble, stop telling yourself that you’re “lucky.” Quiet that demeaning voice in your head.  You deserve to be where you are. You deserve the success that you’ve worked hard for. You deserve the future success that you are destined to have.
Also… wear bug spray. ☺