Maryam Khan research Northeastern Illinois University

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Monday, December 14, 2015

Mass shootings are contagious.

That was the headline-grabbing conclusion of a research project that Maryam Khan began working on when she was a senior at Northeastern Illinois University. Almost as soon as the paper was published by PLoS ONE journal in July 2015, lead researcher Sherry Towers’ phone began to ring with calls from news outlets such as NBC, NPR and The Washington Post.

“It was really exciting to hear how widely spread this paper was receiving attention,” said Khan, who graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics in 2013 and now is enrolled in Arizona State University’s Ph.D. program for Applied Mathematics for the Life and Social Sciences. “At the same time, I realized this paper is talking about media attention for mass shootings, and I found that ironic.”

The research team discovered that mass killings—events with four or more deaths—and school shootings create a period of contagion that lasts an average of 13 days.

“This issue of looking at guns and who can buy these firearms is very important,” Khan said. “That should be looked at more seriously because a lot of these incidences are happening because of firearms.”

Towers, a statistician, modeler and Arizona State research professor, was joined on the project by fellow Arizona State faculty members Carlos Castillo-Chavez and Anuj Mubayi (a former Northeastern assistant professor), and Arizona State graduate student Andres Gomez-Lievano.

Khan was the only undergraduate student involved in the research project, and Towers sees that as an indication of her potential. “Maryam continues to work on applying novel mathematical models to social issues like crime,” Towers said. “There is much interesting work to do on the topic, and she has a bright future ahead of her.”

Khan says her evolution from Niles North High School student in Skokie, Illinois, into internationally recognized researcher is “still sinking in.” When she transferred into Northeastern from Oakton Community College, Khan planned to become a math teacher. After one semester, she switched to a Mathematics major and in fact was not sure she wanted to pursue graduate school until Northeastern’s Student Center for Science Engagement paved the way for her to conduct summer research and be a presenter at the Society for Advancement of Hispanics/Chicanos and Native Americans in Science National Conference in the summer of 2013. “That experience really encouraged me to go on and apply for grad school,” Khan said.

That’s not to say Khan wasn’t a motivated student before the conference. She was a math tutor and vice president of the Actuary Club. She also was a volunteer in Northeastern’s Mathematics Enrichment Workshop Program and was involved in the Mathematical and Statistical Modeling of Complex Systems Workshops series, which is where she met Towers. Khan co-authored her first paper with Towers and Mubayi—about climate change and influenza—in January 2013. For good measure, Khan performed a summer research internship in 2014—just before starting her studies at Arizona State—at Argonne National Laboratory that concentrated on California droughts and their effects on future hydroelectric power generation.

“We are so proud of Maryam,” Northeastern Department of Mathematics Chair Lidia Filus said. “She serves as a great example of the opportunities for growth, research, networking and professional development Northeastern creates for its students.”

Khan’s next project brings her back to her Chicago roots: She plans to look at how socioeconomic factors play a role in narcotic incidences in the city. Additionally, she wants to determine if there exists a self-excitation process on gang-related violent crimes, which is significant in predicting when and where another event, such as retaliation, is likely to occur.

“It’s stressful, but I really enjoy what I do, so it’s worth it,” Khan said. “It makes my work more meaningful to know that in some way my research is making an impact on society.”

Photo by Deanna Dent/Arizona State University