CMC Professor Receives $800,000 NSF Grant for Lyme Disease Research

Blake Hunter, an assistant professor of mathematical sciences at Claremont McKenna College, will receive a three-year, $800,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to fund Lyme disease data research, along with co-principal investigator Deanna Needell from the University of California, Los Angeles. The grant was announced early last month.

“This is my first big grant as a principle investigator, so it was my baby, and I was very proud that it got funded," Hunter said. "As competitive and as rare as it is to get an NSF grant, I am extremely excited.”

Lyme disease, a tick-borne bacterial illness that causes prolonged fever, headache, fatigue, and rashes, affects approximately 300,000 people annually.

“There are two main goals for the project,” Hunter said. “The first goal is trying to help accelerate Lyme disease research. Lyme disease is the fastest growing disease in the country, if not the world, and more and more people are being diagnosed with it everyday. The more we know about the disease, the easier it is for researchers to find solutions – better cures, better treatment plans, and so on. But there are also a lot a lot of underlying mathematics that we’re going to develop for this project as well, and these mathematics we’ll apply to other areas that extend well outside of Lyme disease," he said.

The grant will allow the researchers to analyze more than one million data points collected from almost 10,000 patients through the MyLymeData project, launched in 2015 through LymeDisease.org. The data includes information on the nature, severity, and duration of the disease.

Hunter first became aware of the wealth of information from MyLymeData through Needell, who previously worked at CMC and is now a professor of mathematics at UCLA.

“I do high dimensional data analysis and data mining, so I work with really large data sets. LymeDisease.org presented this as a problem, and I just jumped on the possibility of using their data," Hunter said.

Progressing the medical understanding of Lyme disease isn’t the grant’s only purpose.

“The money is to support summer research for myself and my co-principal investigator, but it’s also for funding undergraduate students, graduate students, and postdocs. We’re really trying to focus on bringing in underrepresented groups; that was one of the big parts of the grant," Hunter said. “We are trying to grab undergrads, postdocs, and graduate students that might not traditionally get exposure to this research, to give them opportunities to work on problems that they’ve never worked on before.”

Hunter was surprised and elated when he found out he had received the grant.

“I would guess [the number of applicants] is on the order of 85, and it got reduced down to the three of us who actually got funding," he said. "Even coming from CMC and UCLA, we were able to compete against schools that are more traditional research powerhouses. UCLA is also a powerhouse as far as research goes, but there are people from other schools that all applied for the same grant and didn’t receive it, and we did. So the fact that CMC was able to hold its own amongst all of these big power research schools was very impressive, and I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from other people who applied for the grant.”

Hunter plans to continue teaching, despite the added research workload.

“CMC is really focused on a balance between teaching and research. Especially in the mathematics department, we’ve always taken research extremely seriously. This grant will just give me an opportunity to spend a little bit more time – mostly during my summers – on this specific project,” he said.

Though Needell has already started some of her work, Hunter is at the beginning of an extended process of recruiting undergraduate and graduate students for his research. He expects the project will officially kick off in September 2018.