Working modeler

One day in late 2004, television art director Karen Steward visited the penthouse floor of a glass office building in Los Angeles to sit down with UCLA epidemiologist Sally Blower and the half dozen members of Blower's Disease Modeling Group and talk about television. Steward was enlisting Blower's scientific expertise for the third episode of the CBS drama NUMB3RS, in which an FBI agent's

By | April 1, 2009

One day in late 2004, television art director Karen Steward visited the penthouse floor of a glass office building in Los Angeles to sit down with UCLA epidemiologist Sally Blower and the half dozen members of Blower's Disease Modeling Group and talk about television. Steward was enlisting Blower's scientific expertise for the third episode of the CBS drama NUMB3RS, in which an FBI agent's brother uses mathematical models to determine the origin of a mysterious outbreak of Spanish flu.

Presenting the multicolored script, "I asked her to show me graphics on her computer screen that show how to track a disease from one place to another. She just laughed at me," Steward recalls.

That's because the crux of tracking disease lies in relatively simple equations, which Blower drew out and explained for Steward on a large white board.

Steward was "blown away" by Blower's thoroughness and enthusiasm. But the equations—which include parameters such as how long the infection lasts in one person and how many susceptible people that person contacts—were apparently too simple for Hollywood.

"She wanted pretty math," Blower recalls. "So we ended up writing down equations for them that really didn't have anything to do with what they were saying."

For the last two decades, Blower has applied her predictive models to a diverse array of disease scenarios, including a recent, controversial paper that suggested a vaginal microbicide against HIV could surprisingly benefit men more than women. That an increasing number of public health experts are starting to welcome the predictions of mathematical models "has been very satisfying," Blower says. But not all scientists side with Blower's models, arguing that reality (and not just TV) is significantly more complex than what she presents in her equations.

Last July, Blower published a model showing that widespread use of vaginal microbicides—an antiretroviral therapy that was designed to help prevent HIV infection in women—could do more for men than women, and increase the risk of drug resistance in women who are already infected with the virus (PNAS, 105:9835-40, 2008).

Microbicide experts took issue with the model's real-world relevance. "In some way, we felt like they slightly missed the point," says Lori Heise, director of the Global Campaign for Microbicides, in Washington, D.C, who published these concerns in a November letter to PNAS (105:E73, 2008). It's not clear whether the microbicides are absorbed in the bloodstream, where drug resistance would occur, Heise says. Plus, in order for men to benefit from the microbicide, it would have to protect them from an HIV-positive woman, she adds. "There's not much biological plausibility at this point to know that that would be the case," Heise says. (Blower and her co-authors argue that the model's conclusions hold even if antiviral microbicides do not protect men from infected women.)

"I have not felt that there was a high degree of credibility [in some of Blower's work] mainly because some of the clinical and biological underpinnings or assumptions in her work just were not particularly realistic in my view," says Ron Gray, a reproductive epidemiologist and HIV specialist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Seventeen other international experts in infectious disease modeling declined to talk about Blower's research. Three cited specific unpleasant personal or professional interactions with her. (Some scientists did speak positively about her work.)

In 2000, after circulating an email to several colleagues that accused the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) of gender discrimination, Blower moved to the UCLA biomathematics department.

Four years later, the heads of that department charged Blower with "verbal abuse, false statements, disparagement, and harassment of faculty," according to a news report in Science. Shortly after, Blower moved to UCLA's Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, and in 2006, the University and Blower settled the dispute. In a statement, Blower admitted her behavior was "at times inappropriate" and that her disparaging statements about the Department of Biomathematics and the University were "unwarranted," and all parties involved agreed to make no further public comments.

"She's a controversial figure, but I've always thought that she was one of the smartest people that I've interacted with," says Philip Hopewell, a professor of medicine at UCSF who helped Blower determine realistic parameters for models of tuberculosis transmission. "I don't think her work is any more controversial than any other modeler's work. [Modeling] is intrinsically dependent on the assumptions used."


Avatar of: Ellen Hunt

Ellen Hunt

Posts: 199

May 1, 2009

People in biosciences have really thin skins. There is all this endless "respect" for bigwigs, and it does great harm to research. That culture is why we have our absolutely huge corruption problem. In bioscience, it is routine for a department chair to be corrupt, approve false research, or retaliate against an ethical colleague/graduate student for rocking the boat. \n\n(And that's just the beginning of the list. We could go into criminal activities like stealing bodies for sale that happened at UC, or taking kickbacks, but I'll leave that stuff aside.) \n\nWe need more people who are right and willing to be sharp with those who are not or who are lying through their teeth. \n\nIn engineering and statistics/math, people who are sharp and have a sharp tongue are VALUED! They are valued because they keep the profession honest. Sometimes they are wrong, but they'll admit it if you show them. \n\nBioscience is full of this "my esteemed colleague" rubbish which we get from the medical fraternity. Medicine is full of it because they all think of themselves as the little godlings sent to earth, and feel entitled to their high salaries. They are also a tight gang of good-old-boys, and everybody knows it. \n\nI don't know her, but on the face of it, good for Blower! Those guys at UCSF and UCLA are an overly thin-skinned bunch, and like the rest of the UC system a total good-old-boy's club. In my opinion, if a bioscientist hasn't pissed off the medical community at UC and been retaliated against, they aren't doing their job. Most likely Blower deserves an award for standing up to them.
Avatar of: Adam Smith

Adam Smith

Posts: 20

May 1, 2009

Let me get this straight Ellen. She makes claims of abuse at UCSF... Good for her for rocking the boat against the corruption! \n\nShe moves to UCLA. People make claims of abuse against her... Thin-skinned chumps! Good for her for rocking the boat against the corruption!\n\nIt's all so clear now. Thanks.\n\nPersonally, if her data is good and fit with reality then she is a good researcher. It has nothing to do with how many people she stands up to. Pretty sure she would see it the same way.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 77

May 2, 2009

...they are all incomplete. They are abstractions, to a greater or lesser degree, of the nature they purport to describe and as such, only attempt to isolate the fewest major influential factors (independent variables) that account for the greatest amount of variance (in a dependent variable). Models aren't right or wrong, but only better or worse in "explaining or predicting the most data" with the fewest "free" parameters (or assumptions) - i.e., with the least uncertainty. \n\nThat said, each branch of science handles their "models" of reality somewhat differently and each specialized area within those branches has its own set of known, putative and speculative contributing factors - that specify the required "controls" for unambiguous interpretation of any study.\n\nIt is odd that "disputes", such as the one described - or, at least, the part dealing with theoretical adequacy, survive for long in any credible area of science as someone likely has, or should have by now, systematically analyzed her model and pointed out the strengths and any shortcomings re completeness or certainty with respect to competing models. Lacking that, apparently something other than credible science (or credible reporting) is going on here.
Avatar of: Donald Duck

Donald Duck

Posts: 39

May 2, 2009

Even if her model is off, at least she recognizes the danger of using antibiotics. There was a friend of my cousin who (might) have lasted more than two weeks if she hadn't been overusing antibiotics. When her prescription ran out she got more from her friends. She was overworked, in too many sports, didn't sleep, studied too much, and had no free time. Thanks to premature antibiotics use, her little attackers were completely immune to everything.\n\n If she hadn't overused antibiotics and just gotten sick the normal way she would have been able to use antibiotics for something important, like saving her life.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 125

May 6, 2009

Sally Blower has no degree in mathematics and, yet, she is not only credited with the mathematical modeling, but is a head of the group at a major research insitute in America? Wait, let me guess, either she is naturally gifted in mathematics or got a break as a white female to her entitlement (. By the way, she's been involved in discrimination cases as both accuser and accused. Who said that being white in America is still not an advantage?\n\n\nHer CV:\n\n\n\nHer legal controversy:\n\n

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