High school student Comfort Ohajunwa is making extraordinary strides in mathematical and computing research, thanks in part to her strong connection to George Mason University’s STEM programs.
Ohajunwa, a rising senior at The Governor’s School @ Innovation Park on Mason’s Science and Technology Campus, first gained exposure to research through membership in Mason’s Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program (ASSIP) in the summer of 2020.
“What attracted me to the program was seeing that I could actually work on real research with some people who are in fields that I’m interested in,” Ohajunwa said.
Padmanabhan Seshaiyer, Ohajunwa’s mentor and a professor of mathematical sciences at Mason, selected her from the list of applicants for ASSIP and continues supporting her innovative research efforts.
Ohajunwa’s continued connection to Mason has helped her accomplish some remarkable things despite having never met Seshaiyer in person until July 2021, as much of her time at The Governor’s School has been virtual because of the pandemic.
Over the past year, Ohajunwa has been doing mathematical modeling research concerning the impact of behavioral patterns on the spread of COVID-19.
Seshaiyer, who encourages research that makes an impact, said, “[Ohajunwa] didn’t just express that she wanted to do mathematics and computing. She said, ‘I want to solve a real-world challenge.’ ” And what better problem than COVID-19.”
“We’ve looked at how we can, for instance, add the effects of lockdown or social distancing or even if we have two groups of people with different behaviors—one behaving group who’s complying with the rules, and another group that’s not complying or not social distancing—and seeing how those interactions between those groups and how those behaviors also affect the spread of COVID-19,” Ohajunwa said.
Ohajunwa is the lead author of a research paper on this topic published in the Computational and Mathematical Biophysics journal, with another research paper already accepted and two others in progress.
According to Ohajunwa, one of the papers involves collaborative work with researchers in Colombia who are applying Ohajunwa’s model to research COVID-19 dynamics in Bogota.
Seshaiyer said that other research involves studying the links between COVID-related lockdown time and domestic violence, which will be presented at the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics’ July meeting.
Ohajunwa has already presented her work at two international mathematics conferences: the NimBioS Undergraduate Research Conference and the Symposium on Biomathematics Ecology Education and Research.
“When I first started doing ASSIP, I wasn’t really expecting to end up publishing a paper … but it allowed me to connect with Dr. Seshaiyer and also present at conferences, work on papers, and continue expanding and growing the project,” Ohajunwa said.
This summer, Ohajunwa is one of only 52 U.S. students participating in the 38th annual Research Science Institute, held in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“She’s going to be such a great role model for women of color,” Seshaiyer said. “I think she’s going to be one of those champions that’s definitely going to make such a big difference in science and engineering.”