Zombies Inspire Student’s Disease Research

By Charles Buchanan

0312 chu1UAB graduate student Virginia Chu is using her braaiiiins, demonstrating how a game of "Humans vs. Zombies" can reveal the spread of infectious disease through a population. Virginia Chu admits that she was a bad zombie.

During her undergraduate years at Georgia Tech, the Atlanta native participated in the campuswide “Humans vs. Zombies” game. Players begin as humans, except for one student zombie with a mission to “infect” the others by touching them. Once tagged, the new zombies seek their own prey, setting in motion a weeklong race to survive the apocalypse.

Players wear bandanas identifying them as human or zombie, so “it’s hard to be sneaky and infect somebody”—always her downfall, recalls Chu, now an epidemiology student in the UAB School of Public Health. But her attempts to hunt human victims helped her to discover the science within the game—and translate it into a tool for modeling the spread of infectious diseases.

Back-of-the-Envelope Idea

“The textbook case for disease modeling is cruise ships—figuring out how fast a disease can spread depending on the size of the ship, and whether quarantine or treatment is the best solution,” explains Chu, who has had a longstanding interest in infectious diseases. The zombie game, however, provides a living, breathing case study that researchers can follow as it progresses in a real-world setting.

0312 chu2The undead in Chu's game appear less gruesome than the zombies of TV and movies, sporting yellow bandanas on their heads. Uninfected participants wear bandanas on arms and legs. Chu translated her unusual idea into a scientific study by winning a Back of the Envelope (BOTE) Award at the end of 2011. Launched by the UAB School of Public Health in 2009, the competition encourages students, faculty, and staff to submit edgy, creative ideas that could shape public health research, education, or practice. Student winners receive up to $5,000 to put their ideas into action.

“Winning helped to validate my idea and allowed me to make it my graduate thesis,” says Chu. BOTE rules required her to describe her idea literally on the back of an envelope. “You give it a quick pitch,” she says. “It helped me learn how to craft a succinct proposal.” She reported on the progress of her study at a BOTE Symposium in December 2012.

Game Advantage

The Humans vs. Zombies game offers several advantages for disease-modeling research, says Chu. While epidemiological studies often face the challenging task of tracking large cohorts of people, the game simplifies things by giving each player an anonymous code and access to an online system to provide updates on the game’s progress. Zombies log in to report how many victims they’ve claimed, and humans must check in to show that they’re still playing and available for tagging; otherwise, they’re automatically removed from the game. These incentives encourage participation and help keep the game moving, Chu explains.

At the end of the week, organizers reveal the chain of zombie infection. Chu has used that data, along with demographic information volunteered by the student players when they register for the game, to draw big-picture conclusions.

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“We don’t always look at disease transmission on a college campus, but it has great potential for an outbreak because students come from all over the place,” she says. “They sit in class with different people on different days of the week and might not know who they’re living or eating with. It would be useful to test outbreak and quarantine plans in a campus setting to see if they would be effective in curbing transmission.”

In the particular Humans vs. Zombies game that Chu studied, 1,312 students signed up, 477 participated through the end of the weeklong event, and about 30 avoided becoming zombies. Using a technique known as “social mapping,” Chu applied demographic data along the path of zombie infection to identify links among students. One surprise was that “despite the difference in male and female population—the campus is predominately male—both were equally infectious,” Chu says. “We had something like 14 girls playing the game, but each one tagged two or three people on average, which is pretty good.”

Zombies Are Us

Chu says that data management has been her biggest challenge in transforming two paragraphs on the back of an envelope into a campuswide study. “I never realized how much work it takes to get a data set—putting everything in the right format before I can analyze it,” she says. “It has been a great experience to prepare me to have my own research team and to obtain funding and institutional review board [research ethics] approval.”

0312 chu3Chu's graphic shows connections between the players in the game—and illustrates how an actual infection would likely spread from person to person. Now Chu plans to follow future games at Georgia Tech—and perhaps introduce some new rules to enhance its use as a disease model for college campuses. “There are areas where we can change the game dynamics, such as a quarantine or other disease elements that happen in real life.” She has reviewed her findings with UAB faculty advisors and is working toward publishing them.

Chu suggests that America’s current zombie fascination ties into public health. “Zombies are us—and not us at the same time,” she says. “We want to know what’s making them zombies and how we can stop it. That’s relevant to disease—we want to find what’s causing it and how to cure it.

“The zombie aspect of my research makes people sit up and take notice,” she says. “I want to use that to help teach people about the spread of disease and the science behind it.”


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