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Elsa Hansen

Ph.D Mathematics & Engineering, Queen's '11

From Theory to Experiment: Queen's Alum Elsa Hansen's work at the "Centre for Communicable Disease Dynamics" at Harvard University


The Hansen family on graduation day

Hansen family on graduation day

(L to R) Jeanette (Mother), Johanna (Sister), Elsa & Don (Father).

Photo courtesy of Amy Hurford

By Christine Elie

December 2012

Queen’s Alum Elsa Hansen is currently working as a Postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Communicable Disease Dynamics at Harvard. Her work looks to develop mathematical models to better understand malaria. More specifically, Elsa describes her work by saying “I study how different aspects of the malaria parasite’s life-cycle impact the dynamics of malaria infection both within a single infected individual and on a population level.”

Harvard offered Elsa the opportunity to participate in a more interdisciplinary setting. This is also one of the aspects of her work that she champions: “I get to work closely with experimentalists and health policy specialists and I am especially excited about the interdisciplinary and collaborative nature of my work.”

She sees her time at Harvard as an opportunity to grow as a researcher: “A primary reason I chose my current position is that it gave me an opportunity to work directly with experimentalists.”  She is now able to see her theories come to life and sees this as a chance to develop and strengthen new academic skills: “this represented a shift from my PhD work which was predominantly theoretical and for me was the next step towards developing myself as a researcher.”

Elsa completed her Ph.D at Queen’s in 2011. Her dissertation, “Applications of Optimal Control Theory to Infectious Disease Modeling,” won the 2011 Cecil Graham Doctoral Dissertation Award. Of her victory, Elsa says, “it is really exciting to have my research recognized by the CAIMS community and I am absolutely thrilled to have received this award.”

More than recognition, Elsa appreciates the exposure that the award has brought to her work: “Since receiving the award I have had new opportunities to present my research and interact with researchers especially within the Canadian applied mathematics community.”

Elsa came to Queen’s after completing her undergraduate degree in engineering at the University of British Columbia. She says that “it was a long and complicated path that ultimately led to my decision to complete a PhD in applied mathematics at Queen’s.” During her undergraduate work, she was drawn to courses on mathematics and control theory. She discovered the Mathematics and Engineering program at Queen’s and decided to do her Master’s. “I eventually integrated this experience with my interest in using a mathematical framework to study biological phenomena for my PhD in applied mathematics.”

lets graduate

Let's graduate! Elsa (R), with her sister,

 Johanna (middle)  & friend Amy Hurford (L).

Photo courtesy of Jeanette Hansen

Elsa remembers her time at Queen’s fondly. “I really liked living in Kingston, I think it’s a rather special place.” When she first moved to Kingston, she “rented a bachelor suite and it was my first time living on my own. I loved it!”

Academically, Elsa credits Queen’s with structuring her research methods. “I think the academic environment was structured to produce self-motivated, creative and critical thinkers.” She also lauds the relationship she had with her mentors: “I also had the good fortune to be mentored by two exceptional researchers,” she says, “the training I received at Queen’s has undoubtedly served me well and plays an important role in how I approach research.”

“For me, the most rewarding part of my research is using a mathematical approach to describe and understand problems in a way that enhances our understanding of the natural world.” Elsa strives to work closely with experimentalists in the research that she is currently doing. She would like to inform their experiments and interpret their results and the potential impact these results could have in the real world. “The last couple of years I have focused primarily on malaria and I plan to continue this work but I am also interested in extending my work to study other biological phenomena.”

Where will her work take her in the future? Elsa is flexible, but does hope to one day come home: “although I’m open to whatever opportunities present themselves, it would be lovely to return to Canada to continue my work!”

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